The mental health crisis among American children of color – WBUR News

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Editor’s Note: This story includes accounts of self-harm and suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number, a free and confidential service, is available in either English (1-800-273-8255or Spanish (1-888-628-9454).  
NSPH is also online and has representatives available to talk through chat at
Youth suicide has been on the rise across the United States.
And for young people between the ages of 5 and 12, the suicide rate for Black children is nearly double that of white children.
The pandemic has made the situation even worse.
Today, On Point: The mental health emergency for children of color.
Tami Charles, she lost her 10-year-old son, Seven Bridges, to suicide.
Kevin Simon, trained adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist physician. Assistant at the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Boston Children’s Hospital. Instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. (@DrKMSimon)
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Tami Charles is joining us today. She’s in Louisville, Kentucky. Tami, welcome to On Point.
TAMI CHARLES: Thank you, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: Thank you so much for being with us today. I wonder if we could start. I’d love to hear the description of … your son, Seven Bridges. What was his smile like?
CHARLES: Infectious. That kid smiled the second day we saw him and had not stopped. His smile was infectious. He was a genuinely happy, happy kid.
CHAKRABARTI: And tell me more about the second day you saw him. Why was that particularly important?
CHARLES: Oh it was the first day that I saw him that was important. But the second day was the day that he smiled. And, you know, they say that the angels are playing with the babies and all of that. But, boy, you couldn’t tell me that wasn’t a big grin. And he kept it and it was always there. It was very easy to smile, from the second day that he left. Until the last day I saw him, I saw that smile.
CHAKRABARTI: I know as a mom, there are things about your children that shine through, from the moment you first get to hold them, just like aspects of who they are, which, you know, this is your soul speaking to me. So tell me what else about Seven you just knew about him from the start.
CHARLES: Compassion. That little guy was very compassionate. He loved people. He loved serving. He was very thought-conscious about the next person. And I want to blame that on his nurture at home from his father and I. But it was just something that was innate about him. He always and often and a lot of adults, of course, always mentioned how he was always so willing to run up to them and give them a hug or ask them how they are. The compassionate component was probably the biggest part of it. He cared, genuinely cared about things, about people and about feelings.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And he seems that he cared about people even when they necessarily didn’t show him that care back, right?
CHARLES: Absolutely.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You want to tell me a little bit about that?
CHARLES: Absolutely. Seven was one who accepted everyone. He was that kid that played with everyone on the playground. He talked to everybody. He never had any cliques or any groups that he would associate with. And then he would also come into defense of the ones that were shunned in some way or another. He also was able to, you know, deflect some of the things that would come his way with humor.
And from that he was able to take the brunt of people’s ugliness and understand that was not necessarily something that he needed to fight back against, or he needed to defend himself against what they did to him. He was always cognizant of how he moved and the actions that he took. Very cognizant of those things.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, he was born with some challenges at birth. And that led to him being bullied at school?
CHARLES: That is some mind calisthenics … [it’s] a little bit of a stretch, however. Yes, he was born with a perforated anus which allowed him, it’s a one in 5,000 rare disease. Which allowed him to get a 15 hour surgery on the day that he was born. He then, of course, had a colostomy bag for a short time, and then we just dealt with all of the after effects and tried to have him the closest to a normal digestive system, as normal a digestive system as we can help him achieve.
Now the bullying started for some other reasons. It just ended up being one of the stones that was thrown. That, you know, sometimes he had a little fecal incontinence and of course, it came with the smell. So he had that his entire life. So there was always something said … it just comes with it. Nevertheless, it didn’t lead to him being bullied. It was just a part of it.
CHAKRABARTI: By the way, I appreciate the correction. And, you know, it was a polite correction. By the way, people usually don’t give me the benefit of the doubt of calling it mind calisthenics. But I really do appreciate it. Listen, I want to hear as much as you want to tell us about your son. And the reason why I asked that previous question is because, I mean, Seven experienced a lot of bullying.
CHARLES: Correct. He experienced bullying, as we all have in some sort of environment, where you’re pointed out where you’re different. He wasn’t his entire life repetitively bullied. His bullying began August 27th, five months before he died, when he refused to argue or fight a girl that had called him a racial slur. And so the one who did come up and defend him was angry that he didn’t have that defense mechanism in him.
So that person, who at that time defended him against the person, became his bully because he didn’t do any adverse or any consequential things towards the other little girl. Well, from that, whatever policies that come into place with fighting, that was just part of it. … My husband and I began to advocate for just a paper trail. Just write it down like, you know, the little dude got choked. And for me, I’m military, you know, just give me the third copy. I’m sure you have one written down. And once that was exposed that they had done nothing.
Then the policy steps that are implemented in our schools, they begin to be offended. And then, of course, you know, shame, ashamed from it, because I am that parent that was constantly there. My son was ten years old and I have served a policy council and the PTA for nine years. I was there and everything and Seven did every single thing. Oftentimes we were the only families or one of very few that participated in everything.
So it gave me some sort of, I guess, in retrospect, false sense of security. But at the time, I thought that I was building a stronger bridge and connection to the administrators and then, of course, the other people that had my child in their care. Turns out where I advocated, and because I was able to advocate the way that I was able to advocate, unlike other parents whose children had been bullied, they’d be so frustrated, they would come in swearing and wanting to fight.
And I didn’t. Those policies that they sent home, that they had us to sign, I also read them and I also read the parts that they were supposed to uphold. And in finding that they did not, and I was able to display how they did not.
My son not only had that one incident of being bullied or choked on the bus, he then began to receive the wrath of the adults, the teachers who were embarrassed, who were being shown in the light that they necessarily overall did not necessarily have. But with this situation and this child and this history, it was shown that for the first time, somebody showed it. Now, of course, after I made a viral post, there were people coming in from everywhere saying, Oh, that happened to me, that happened to me, that happened to me.
Then compounding the embarrassment, and the backing of this bully live Facebook video that I did, that began to have the teachers treat him a different way. Seven had been, his principal even said, Seven is the first child that come through this school from kindergarten to fifth grade and has never been in trouble.
CHAKRABARTI: I’m so sorry to interrupt. But so you’re talking about a period of several months where he had experienced, I would call that severe bullying. Being choked on the bus. And you advocating effectively or at least fearlessly on his behalf. And that making things, it sounds like the adults were in a sense, some adults were then, you know, he experienced retribution from them.
CHARLES: Absolutely.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me during this time, how was Seven handling it? What did he talk with you about? I mean, how did you see this?
CHARLES: Well, we talked every day. My son was one, he was one of those children that a lot of parents, and a lot of other children, were pretty mad at him about. Because he was very honest. And if you ask him a question, he’d answer it. And so each day, because I went on to push it up to the Board of Education, and then they had to do a school administrative investigation. And oh, that really burned them up. It all started necessarily not even from him being bullied, but the fact that the policies that were in place were not followed. And that was part of us.
CHAKRABARTI: So, Tami, I have to say, I hate asking this question, but I –
CHARLES: Please … don’t hate it. We are helping, and we are doing this together. So sometimes you got to do the rough stuff. Go ahead.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, your strength is an inspiration to me, because as I was walking to work today, I had dropped my own kid off at school just before I came here to work. And I held his hand the whole way. And I was thinking, what would my life be like if I couldn’t feel his hand in mine? So tell me what happened on January 19th, 2019.
CHARLES: Well, let’s start with January 18th. My son had come home from school and we had … already had months of speaking about how to handle the bullies, the things that were coming up and how teachers would take some things and hold it against him or pressure him, because, of course, his bullying story had gone so viral and they were locked into such a bad light. They would say like Seven, you know, what would your mom think if you did this? What would your mom think?
And when you’re at school, you know, people don’t bring up your parents. So a ten year old guy, and he was prepubescent. It was a little embarrassing for him. And, you know, things that we would talk about and go through. Well, on that Friday, which was the beginning of the Martin Luther King three day weekend, we had talked that morning and I said, you know, we have this day to do and then we have a three day weekend. And let’s just process what we can do together and how you’re feeling and all of that. And we had been doing that at home, praying, talking about it … him telling me everything.
Well, that day … when he came home, I noticed in his eyes something else was up. And I asked him who he played with. He told me about the one little boy that had pretty much been ostracized the whole school year or since they’ve been in school because of his size. And he’s a bigger kid and, you know, he doesn’t have a lot of friends.
But Seven had to play with him. Because he had already told me that, because he had been telling on the other people for bullying. And by this time, the school officials were incredibly diligent about any report that any child said about bullying. So the kids were really feeling some effects at home and in school. Well, that made Seven, you know, almost enemy of the state. Because he did say something, you know, he just wanted it to stop. He didn’t realize that him trying to be protected was making him an enemy of the state.
So he found that out at recess on that day. You know, at the end of the road, that was just the last straw. So he comes home and we talk and he tells me who he plays with. He goes and plays his video game, kind of blowing off steam. We eat some and then we have this moment. If you have a little boy, then you know you’re got to watch all the superheroes. So we sat and watched Black Lightning and Supergirl, some of his favorites. And we laid in bed and cuddled. And as I cuddled him and were watching him, I’m telling and I’m saying to him, we love you so much. I love you.
Everything that we do is for you. Everything that we try to work through is for you. Seven, our entire being is about you. So as he’s getting out of bed and I’m trying to kiss on him. … You know, he’s getting to the age where he’s like, Come on, Mom, get off me. But he pulls away in a kind of way that is a little bit more than Mom, get off me. But also now, in retrospect, leaning to, you know, that some sort of separation maybe in his head. The next morning, Seven has, of course, a birth defect.
So … he didn’t spend the night over a lot of people’s houses just because of the nature of his issues where he had to be naked for somebody to help him. Nevertheless, our house was the house that everybody came for. So that night he played his game and he played and talked on the phone with his best friend, my nephew, his cousin, first cousin, and they talked till 3 a.m. I saw that on the phone.
And finally I was like, boy, go to bed, you know, just go to bed. So, you know, we’re going to pick them up tomorrow. Everybody’s coming over here, go to bed. So he goes to bed and at 9 a.m., I get him up to, you know, finish some chores if we’re having company.
And then here’s some writing things. And I’m a very educational parent. So, you know, we’re going to work on these, you’re going to read this one little chapter in the book, and then you’re going to write this chapter, let’s work on your penmanship and then you’re done for the weekend. And I was at the grocery store trying to get food for eight boys for three days, teenage boys for three days. And then planning, of course, we were going to go hear the Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that they give here in Louisville at the Muhammad Ali Museum.
This is what we did every year. Yeah, well, as I come home with all the groceries, I’m knocking on the door, banging on the door, you know, because you boys got to come help you get the groceries out. And about 15 minutes of me banging … because he did stay up till 3 a.m. So I just assumed that he had gone back to sleep. And we never really left Seven at home, but he was getting ten now. So this hour you know, that we left him was kind of, you know, a test, so to speak, practice.
And finally, after much to do, I was inside the house looking all over the place because at this time he was a jokester. He was such a jokester because he was going to hide behind something. And at this point, I’m frustrated, like, okay, dude, I am not playing. Where are you? I don’t want to play anymore. Where are you? And that is, you know, now I’m like, has he made it to where like when he was a small, small child, I’d had to look under the bed going to pillows.
… So I was like, man, I’m now I’m have to shift into this mode. And I’m thinking to myself, man, you’re too big for me to have to be looking around and you know better and so and so and so. And as I looked in his closet. After, of course, going all over to our home basement and everything outside, inside, neighbors, like, where is this dude? I go back in this room and I find my son in his final resting place.
And I grab him by the waist at the same time, almost thinking, I guess, you know, I’m almost thinking like still in that playful mind, like, boy, don’t play like this. You know, this is not a game. This is not what you do to play. And as I got my son on the floor, I saw then that my child was with God. Of course I am eight years’ war time, disabled American veteran, Navy, Medical. So I have seen my share of dead bodies. And I have done my share of resuscitation. So doing it on my son and beginning that, I had enjoyed a great cup of coffee before I came home.
And as I breathed my breath into him, and then the breath that escaped his body was mine. It smelled of coffee. I knew then that my son was gone. Besides having to later decipher all the thoughts that were going through my head at the time. The biggest one was reviving him and getting him emergency help.
But I knew. I knew. I immediately called my husband, who I had just dropped off at choir practice, choir rehearsal, getting him here. We only had one car working, so I had to get him here.
And ironically. My son was 80 pounds. And we knew that, you know, I had a scale. You know, we girls, we have scales everywhere. So he would always jump on the thing. And when the emergency people weren’t coming fast enough, I attempted to pick my son up and put him over my shoulder and I was telling him, I said, we’re on our way to the hospital. And at that time, the EMS burst through.
And I remember screaming, Help my baby. Not save him because that was something that, it wasn’t in my head. Well, I didn’t want to admit. But help my baby. And as many of them arrived, many of them came to his aid, the police and everything. They pushed my husband and I out of our home. We were out of the home. And of course, in retrospect, when something happens to a child, it’s always treated as foul play. Who wants to put ten year old and suicide in the same sentence?
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a resource for people who are thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support. The free and confidential service is available in either English (1-800-273-8255) or Spanish (1-888-628-9454). There is also a line tailored for veterans (1-800-273-8255).
The Commonwealth Fund: “Closing the Mental Health Care Gap for Black Teens” — “In the face of overwhelming demand for behavioral health services, the unmet needs of one group stands out: Black and brown teenagers.”
This program aired on May 12, 2022.
Jonathan Chang Twitter Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.
Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.
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