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Why Teaching Critical Race Theory Matters for Mental Health

By learning this concept in school, children can begin to dismantle racism.

Source: Neonbrand/Unsplash

Since the beginning of the new school year, debates around teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools have escalated. From a mental health perspective, though, I argue that the decision of whether schools should implement CRT as part of students’ curriculum is clear: It’s a vital part of the future of education.

As mental health professionals, we take an oath to do no harm. We have a duty to protect and a duty to warn. And we value the self-determination, autonomy, and inherent worth and strength of all individuals. Teaching CRT to children has mental health implications for both students of color and white students, and, as such, mental health professionals have a moral and ethical obligation to respond, react, and take a strong stance supporting CRT in schools.

What Is Critical Race Theory?

CRT is an academic concept stating that race is a social construct embedded in our social, political, legal, and economic policies, structures, systems, and institutions. Mental health professionals must understand that we do not have to be CRT scholars or work at educational institutions to apply it to our professional or advocacy work.

Understanding structural racism within our systems and policies related to education, income, housing, food, criminal justice, the environment, and health care matters greatly for addressing persistent population health inequities, including mental health inequities. Sadly, one does not have to look far to see the evidence of institutionalized racist practices and the impact of generations of bias in mental health treatment.

Racial Trauma

Compared to white patients, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are more likely to be coerced, restrained, treated with drugs, or medicated in emergency departments than to receive psychotherapy, and are more likely to be misdiagnosed or diagnosed with a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, while remaining underdiagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and mood disorders. To add to this, there is a lack of diversity among mental health providers, resulting in frequent racism, micro-aggressions, and barriers to support.

The pushback against teaching CRT, and an inaccurate portrayal of Black history in schools, communicates to people of color that their lived experience, perspective, and daily struggle, past and present, in a white supremacist society does not matter and will never matter. When kids believe they do not matter, it impacts identity, esteem, efficacy, and the ability to succeed. The debate and pushback could even represent yet another racial trauma that brings with it an intense emotional and mental injury.

Hiding historical trauma prolongs and amplifies present trauma and deepens its impact. The cumulative emotional and psychological wounds are carried across generations leading to higher rates of mental and physical illness, substance use, and the decimation of families and communities.

Critical Thinking—How Teaching CRT Can Benefit Students

Just as the teaching of CRT in schools is vital to the mental health of children of color, abandoning CRT in schools could negatively impact the mental health of white children. Stated simply, CRT calls for critical thinking. Critical thinking allows for the development of empathy, empathic conversations, and open and honest dialogues about race. Practicing empathy is important in building and maintaining secure social attachments, connections, and relationships.

In addition, social connection is predictive of individual mental health while disconnection leads to isolation, depression, and anxiety. Practicing empathy improves the ability to skillfully manage and respond to an emotional experience. Thus, by being empathic, and focusing on the experience of others, an individual becomes equipped to handle stressful or emotionally challenging situations.

A Step Toward Dismantling Racist Systems

Thus, CRT teaches children the tools they need to recognize white supremacy as an ideology that is built into our systems, versus imparting children with feelings of guilt or shame.

Rather, critical thinking skills empower white kids to challenge, change, and dismantle racist systems while enhancing their ability to form meaningful, healthy, and lasting connections with their peers. If Black children are old enough to experience racism, white children are old enough to learn about it, and both will benefit mentally and emotionally from having this type of open, honest, and critical dialogue.