Not long ago, I met a nice young man. He looked to be about 19 years old, and I will call him Baron. He was kind, soft-spoken, and easy going … and both he and his pain are invisible to most people.
Baron has a childhood trauma that has never been given the attention it deserves. He is depressed, addicted to the substances he uses to medicate his suffering and deeply ashamed of the legal run-ins he has amassed.
Sadly, Baron is just a casualty and a statistic in a society that likes to criminalize people who look like him. His legal problems should have been addressed much more humanely and with restorative justice strategies. With beautiful, dark, chocolate skin and a timid grin, Baron had wanted to talk to me.
Someone in the room had informed him that I am a mental health professional. Quietly, he approached and nervously confided that he would like to speak to somebody about his problems.
As I quickly moved to normalize his assertion, and as I noted the special brand of intelligence and insight it takes for a young man to understand his own complex needs, he began to relax. As I talked about the therapeutic interventions that will help him process and unravel the many ways the devastating events of his childhood have, without a doubt, sabotaged him, he flashed a warm and grateful smile. I, on the other hand, ached inside.
I was thinking about all the sweet young men and women who deserve access to treatment, but would rather bite nails than admit their profound hurts and sorrows. The encounter I had with Baron is somewhat rare. More often, young people act out their trauma, or proclaim their many disappointments in loud and asinine ways, but resist any suggestion of a need for therapy. Most times, they are determined to pursue the “rugged individualism” that they think characterize the “winners” in this society.
It astounds my young students to learn that many high-powered CEOs and corporate executives are in therapy. They think therapy is the tragic domain of the weak. They do not know that the ability to analyze their feelings with a trained professional is precisely what many privileged people seek — and that is the problem.
There are a few cruelties that need to be acknowledged, rebuked and reversed: Compassionate mental health providers are not at all as accessible to lower income Black residents in Chicago as they should be and professionals have not done a good job of destroying the stigma surrounding mental health care in our communities.
Certain socioeconomic classes have the resources and supports to access this often life-saving relief, but the less fortunate do not. How can we be comfortable accepting this appalling injustice?
This city exposes our kids to failing schools, economic injustice and unsafe streets policed by too many people who do not value the lives of Black youth, and yet mental health support is not readily available in our neighborhoods. We need safe places for young people in disinvested spaces to explore their authentic feelings about the often crazy things going on around them. They deserve so much better.
In this election season, we should demand specific commitments to the healthy development of our children from every person who has the audacity to run for the privilege of serving this city.
As the holidays draw near, we must pay extra attention to our youth. Joy and happiness may not be what they are experiencing. In fact, this is a time of year when many people feel depressed.
Young people may have unaddressed trauma that does not allow them to feel excited about the season, or they may have lost a supportive relative or friend this year. They could be facing academic or social challenges in school, or they may have low-paying, unsatisfying jobs that leave them hopeless. They may be exposed to a threat, of which no one is aware, in their own homes, or they may be homeless.
So, in this season of giving, why not give the gift of your presence by checking in on a young person who doesn’t seem “right” or who has suffered serious losses this year. Also, begin questioning your elected officials. Where are the mental health resources that our youth deserve in their communities?
Dr. Rhonda Sherrod