UCLA Doctor Discusses Racial Disparities in Children’s Mental Health Care

mental health careDr. Lau’s title slide for her presentation on Mar. 8 | Gabriela Danger, PantherNOW

Gabriela Danger | Assistant News Director

Dr. Anna Lau of the University of California, Los Angeles, came on Mar. 8 to give a talk about her research on racial inequities in the field of youth mental health care. 

Lau’s talk focused primarily on implementing her research in community settings, particularly schools. By analyzing the current services provided, along with their shortcomings, Lau has been able to identify many disparities that children of racial minorities face when dealing with mental health crises in school. 

For a lot of families, getting screened for mental health in school is an overly negative experience. It causes much more stress to the child than care. 

“We talked to a lot of students who really experienced this not as a mental health encounter, but like a disciplinary encounter. They felt like they were in trouble,” said Lau.

“They were getting called in, two people were there. One of them was a school resource officer who put latex gloves on and went through their mag, same thing in their locker.”

This distress leads to an increase in students suppressing their issues and feelings. In one study of teenage Vietnamese students, 

“We found a high reliance on emotion suppression coping as a strategy, and developmental psychopathology research would tell us that should be a target; that emotional suppression coping is associated with the prospect of increased risk in internalizing symptoms.”

“But our data, and others, also raised a question about that for youth and individuals from interdependent cultural backgrounds where emotional restraint is really consistent with cultural values around promoting harmony and not burdening others. There’s been some fairly compelling evidence that the association between emotion suppression and negative health outcomes is moderated by race-ethnicity,” said Lau. 

“In our own data, we only found an attenuated association between emotion suppression coping and emergence of internalizing symptoms prospectively, but it’s a non zero, a significant positive one but attenuated, so we always felt like, should we be like, culturally congruent? Should we be intervening with this? Is this an important target?” Lau specified when addressing an important distinction in her research.

Although some things point to a connection with culture, it is not set in stone, and certainly provides more research opportunities to expand on it. 

As for implementation, Lau and the other researchers around her have sought and continue to seek out ways of intervention that can be done by teachers and non-specialists in school that still target the emotional suppression issue.

The newest intervention tactic that Lau has been trying out is more influenced by “adaptive culture” and how minoritized youth are exposed partly to a “broader, more emotionally expressive mainstream cultural environment,” and also dealing with the stresses of structural racism and growing up in a very specific social landscape of today. 

The “mindfulness” approach is meant for teachers and non-specialists to give out in classrooms, and according to Lau, it has shown results in California schools. 

“I’m often thinking about these high achieving minoritized youth who are often under-researched in the literature. So BIPOC youth who are striving to support their families, to sort of achieve in the context of structural racism, oppression, through our daily experiences of chronic stress, and feelings of scarcity,” Lau said.

“We can think about racial socialization processes, where families need to send messages about the fact that there is bias and there are barriers to your success because of your identities.”

“One very common message is ‘you have to work twice as hard to get half as far’. So this is part of a process of racial socialization, which connects up to academic socialization. This is (the student’s) way to have what (their parents) didn’t have and the way to support (their) family and honor sacrifices,” Lau said.  

Now in her research going forward, Lau is working with students in similar positions using the “mindfulness” approach. 

“So a lot of the kids who are high achieving under conditions of socioeconomic disadvantage also have pretty high rates of allostatic load to start with, as well as internalizing symptoms,” she said. 

Mental health care in adolescents and the disparity of care distribution to children and teens of color has many avenues of research that are now beginning to be explored and improved upon. Researchers like Lau shed light on this topic for people to learn more about.

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