By the time he was 8, Agustin Guzmán was telling his mother he was white.
He stopped eating Mexican food and was reluctant to take part in even his favorite holiday, Día de los Muertos.
The bullying he endured on the playground built up. His peers would ask if he was an “illegal” and taunt him with slurs. Agustin, depressed, put on weight, which fueled the schoolyard bullies even more.
“He told me that his friends were laughing at him because they said kids from Mexico were illegal immigrants,” Jannely Guzmán, his mother, explained. “I told him, ‘You are not from Mexico. You were born in Green Bay. I was born in Chicago.’
“I told him, ‘Your grandparents were born in Mexico, but they have citizenship here.'”
Between being teased for his ethnicity and his size, Agustin would come home from school in tears every day.
Jannely, 25, thinks a lack of exposure to different ethnicities — exacerbated by the pandemic — and increasingly coarse and insensitive rhetoric in public discourse has trickled down to people like Augustin’s classmates. Having them call her son an illegal immigrant, she said, spoke volumes about what they were hearing at home.
Wisconsin’s children are experiencing a higher rate of anxiety and depression compared with the national average, and it’s even worse for children of color. According to the 2022 Kids Count Data Book by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, anxiety and depression have been diagnosed or reported in 60% of Indigenous children, 26% of Black children, 22% of Hispanic children and 15% of white children across Wisconsin.
The Kids Count data came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released results from the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, which found that more than one-third of all U.S. high school students, including whites, feel they’ve been mistreated at school as a result of their race or ethnicity.
The same students reporting racism at school are also more likely to experience poor mental health and feel less connected to their schoolmates, the CDC report added.
Jannely and her three young boys live and attend school in Ashwaubenon, whose population is 86% white and 5% Hispanic. That’s more homogenous than the village’s neighboring city of Green Bay, where Hispanics represent nearly 17% of the population.
Despite attempting therapy, enrolling in programs like Head Start and experimenting with calming techniques like meditation and star breathing, a despair has taken hold of Agustin, 9 now, that remains today.
The attempts at therapy have left Jannely deflated. She lost confidence in school-based counselors. Agustin’s therapist last year told Jannely after a few months of seeing him that he was fine, that everything looked OK.
“After he stopped going to a therapist, the same behavior continued. He was irritable, he would get upset really fast and would start to cry,” Jannely said. “I feel like therapists don’t understand how to deal with kids of color because we have different cultures.”
These reports are not revelatory for the mental health experts, physicians, educators and racial equity advocates interviewed by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin who work with children of color.
Long before the pandemic, anxiety and depression plagued children of color, but that’s not to say those stressors weren’t exacerbated by what the pandemic has wrought: isolation, fears of death, cultural divide and grief.
Dr. Patricia Tellez-Giron, family medicine physician at UW Health, associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and Latino Health Council chair, has been practicing family medicine for 25 years. In that time, she’s been able to uniquely observe intergenerational care as her patients grow from infancy into new family systems as adults.
Tellez-Giron said it’s common, especially for Hispanic or Latino children, to be split between two cultures, which can feel like navigating two worlds simultaneously. This speaks to an absence in diverse counselors, Tellez-Giron said, and specifically, culturally competent counselors — that is, health care providers who understand and can uplift a client’s cultural identity.
“Often, the therapist does not understand our culture, why we are protective, how we all raise the kids together,” Tellez-Giron said. “And then (the therapists) tell the kids, ‘You have to be independent. You have to demand your independence.’ That creates, definitely, tension in the family.”
The lack of culturally responsive support that tends to accompany school bullying can lead to chronic stress, said Renita Robinson, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Prevea Health. Chronic stress can manifest itself in anxiety- and depression-type symptoms.
While discrimination, bullying and languishing as a result of the pandemic can better help us understand the reasons for an uptick in anxiety and depression among children, Robinson said, the onus falls on schools and providers to engage in culturally responsive conversations with students.
When she worked at People’s City Mission, a 400-bed homeless shelter in Lincoln, Nebraska, Robinson said she was overwhelmed by the number of adults in distress who told her they were undone by cruel, often racist words said to them as children.
“You start having conversations and you open up about their history and their childhood and you recognize that their inability, really, to thrive started when they were yea high,” Robinson said, lowering her palm. “It was because they had an interaction with an adult they respected who said something that took their legs out from under them.”
That aligns with many studies that look at the impact of structural and cultural racism, including one study released in June that showed Black children growing up with anti-Black racism have a harder time benefiting from cognitive behavioral therapy as adults.
Meanwhile, at Oneida Nation School, a tribal K-12 school in northeast Wisconsin, principal Art Skenandore said the staff has been hyper-focused on working with students to acknowledge and have honest conversations about the pandemic, from which many students continue to reel.
Skenandore talked about lasting damages from the pandemic that harmed the mental health of students at Oneida Nation School, from isolation to a loss of jobs or income in their family, to a backward slide in basic learning.
“And that’s why we look at the pandemic as et al., because they’re all contributing to anxiety,” Skenandore said. “They’ve all contributed to depression.”
Tacara Lovings, education consultant on the student services prevention and wellness team at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, said that the rates of depression and anxiety in children are a “reflection of where we are in this moment.”
But there are lots of things schools and educators can do to address racial inequities, and much of that work begins with localized information gathering, Lovings said. She suggested using a culture and climate survey at the district level.
A free survey from DPI, the climate survey information created by the U.S. Department of Education, can be directed toward students (grades 5 to 12), parents, instructional staff and noninstructional staff.
Representation in teachers, Lovings said, can also go a long way as diversity grows among K-12 students. The 2019 Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey from DPI revealed that less than 4% of Wisconsin teachers identify as Black or Hispanic.
“We have to acknowledge that 96% of our workforce is a person who identifies as neither of those two groups of historically marginalized people,” Lovings said. “We have to look at the workforce and the educators themselves.”
There’s also a shortage of adults modeling positive mental health practices, Tellez-Giron said, and that can be especially true for many families of color who are fragmented between homelands. Others, especially in rural communities, have to search far and wide for someone who looks like them.
Many Hispanic families in Dane County have been buoyed by the initiatives of Latino Health Council, which provide a range of information on health education, including mental health.
“We have seen what a difference has been with the families that we serve (in Dane County), so we could extrapolate that to more places and do much more healthy education to the parents,” Tellez-Giron said. “You know, talk to them about resources and make them comfortable with normalizing that mental health is just health.”
Molly Herrmann, also an education consultant on the student services prevention and wellness team at DPI, said the agency is planning to add a question about perceived racism in schools to the 2023 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, to get a better understanding of the climate in Wisconsin.
Herrmann explained that having this data can help the state apply better strategies to support children and young people who experience racist or discriminatory issues at school.
Robinson, meanwhile, said it’s important for people to understand the power of negativity. In children like Agustin, for every negative comment they receive, they need to hear positive messages tenfold.
“A child like (Agustin) really just needs to be showered in the reality of how much they matter and how wonderful it is to be a person of Hispanic descent,” Robinson said.
Since school began this year, Janelly has fallen back into her regular morning routine with her two school-aged children, Agustin and Aiden, 5, who just started preschool.
On a sunny Thursday morning ahead of the bus picking them up, Agustin and Aiden ate heaping spoonfuls of cereal, brushed their teeth and played with their top spinners, which was their version of “putting away” their toys.
Many of Agustin’s previous classmates are in his new fourth-grade class and he signaled with a nod to a visiting journalist that things were going well so far.
Jannely said he’s grown more enthusiastic about his Mexican heritage in the last few months, a result of making other Hispanic friends and being able to speak, play and joke in Spanish.
On the way to the bus stop, a preschool girl ran up to Aiden with a birthday present for him. The two families stood together chatting in Spanish as the children chased each other in small bursts.
Jannely said she’s hopeful Agustin will have a better time adjusting this year. He’s excited to be among his classmates again, and now that his cousin’s in the first grade, he gets to hang out with him on the way into and out of school.
When she was young, Jannely struggled with depression without much support. She teaches her boys that it’s OK to be emotional, something she sees as critical given societal assumptions about men being withholding.
She also knows what it’s like to straddle two cultures.
“I teach him about America and I tell him ‘I’m like you,’ about how long it took me to embrace my cultures. I take from both of them to create what makes me happy,” Jannely said. “Right now, he likes it. He’s starting to embrace it.”
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Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-CENTRAL WISCONSIN. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
By the time he was 8, Agustin Guzmán was telling his mother he was white.