Kids Help Phone launches strategy to support Black youth distressed by racism, discrimination

·4 min read

Nadine Yousif Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Is Kids Help Phone giving enough help to distressed Black kids calling about racism?

The national mental health crisis line is developing an initiative to address anti-Black racism and determine how to best support Black youth who call in due to distress from racism and discrimination.

The initiative, named RiseUp, is funded with the help of Tangerine Bank’s investment platform, Project Forward. The money will be used to conduct an internal analysis of Kids Help Phone to evaluate everything from hiring practices that could see more Black counsellors join the crisis line, to how Black youth calling in for support are helped. It also includes the development of new training on anti-Black racism for all Kids Help Phone staff, coming in October.

A new manager has been hired to oversee this development, said Deanna Dunham, the director of the Indigenous Initiatives and Equity Programs at Kids Help Phone, which have been used as a model for the crisis line’s Black youth initiative. A permanent advisory council of Black youth leaders will also be created to support RiseUp, Dunham said.

“We’ve had a lot of success with our Indigenous youth strategy, and we’re seeing the impact we can have on marginalized communities and youth who need our support,” Dunham said.

The goal, Dunham added, is to best support an increasing number of Black youth contacting Kids Help Phone after experiencing distress from racism and discrimination.

Last May and June, during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Kids Help Phone received double the number of usual calls related to racism, Dunham said. Racism is the second-leading cause of distress among youth calling, behind youth who are fearing abuse from someone in the home.

Dunham said it’s important that Kids Help Phone has trained counsellors to take these calls with understanding of cultural nuances, as well as understanding that sometimes, police or health providers are not the best places to refer racialized youth.

“Sometimes kids can be afraid of us contacting police because the way emergency services respond to kids from racialized communities is different, and systemic racism does exist in the health-care system,” Dunham said. “Kids Help Phone is very open to acknowledging that.”

Part of the internal review of Kids Help Phone will be to re-evaluate the database of community mental health services that callers are referred to, and ensure the inclusion of Black-led organizations that can best support youth experiencing discrimination.

The enduring mental health impacts of racism have been studied in Canada and the United States. A recent study published in the National Academy of Sciences of the United States showed that between 2013 and 2017, incidents of racial violence in the U.S. with heightened national interest led to worsening mental health outcomes for Black study participants when compared to white participants.

“Reducing racial violence, including police killings of Black individuals, is likely to benefit the mental health of Black Americans nationally,” the authors concluded.

In Canada, a report by the Wellesley Institute in 2012 cited research that found Black Canadians to be more suspicious of the justice and medical systems due to historical trauma, which causes a delay in seeking help and a worsening of mental health that result in Black Canadians landing in emergency rooms more often for psychiatric reasons.

Kids Help Phone’s RiseUp initiative, which began its work in fall 2020, comes on the heels of other major institutional plans and frameworks in the Canadian mental health sphere that aim to dismantle anti-Black racism. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health recently launched its own public strategy within the hospital, which also looks at evaluating hiring practices and how care can best be offered to Black patients.

As Canada’s only 24/7 text, chat and phone-call help line for young people, Kids Help Phone received around 800 calls and texts for help from children and youth across the country daily since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the crisis line received a total of more than four million calls and texts.

The funding from Tangerine — the exact amount was not specified by the bank — is a two-year commitment, according to both the bank and Kids Help Phone. But Dunham said the advisory council and the manager positions hired using this funding will be at the crisis line for the long term.

“These are changes that will affect Kids Help Phone forever.”

Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star