Pediatricians Group Warns That Racism Is Harmful To The Health Of Children

Aug 11, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Many people are still trying to come to grips with the violence that took place last weekend, in the case of El Paso, violence that was directed towards certain people because of their race or ethnicity. And even as adults are trying to come to grips with their own feelings, it can't be overlooked that children are also taking all of this in - perhaps overhearing news about the shootings, perhaps listening to disparaging comments from the White House about certain people or groups, perhaps hearing friends or neighbors or members of their own families echoing those comments. And that's got public health experts concerned.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement on the impact of racism on children published in this month's issue of Pediatrics. It is the first time the academy has explicitly focused on racism. The statement draws from hundreds of studies to warn doctors that exposure to racism is harming children's overall health.

Dr. Jacque Douge (ph) co-authored statement. She's a pediatrician in Howard County, Md. And she's with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C. Dr. Jacque, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JACQUELINE DOUGE: Thank you for the opportunity.

MARTIN: So there have been policy statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics about gun violence, cyberbullying, homelessness and many different challenges that children face that could affect their health. But this is the first time there's been a statement on racism explicitly - why now?

DOUGE: So, you know, as our medical profession is becoming more diverse, as our children are becoming more diverse, I think it's actually become more of a push to do it. And I think it's important that it was done now.

MARTIN: Well, the guidance draws on hundreds of studies about this. Can you just talk about some of the studies?

DOUGE: They're medical studies that showed the association of perceived bias and depression and anxiety. And there's also research about witnessing events of racism causing anxiety and depression amongst youth. And kids, when they're very young, you know, when they're infants, they start to notice differences. When they're toddlers, like 2 to 4, they can start to sense racial bias. They can pick up cues.

And then the older they get, if you're not really addressing those issues, they're going to be exposed. And yes, it will increase stress levels. For some kids, it can increase anxiety. Wherever kids are touching systems or touching their lived environment, there's always some insult from racist - right? - these small, small incidents or they could be huge incidents.

MARTIN: The academy's report gives some recommendations for how pediatricians can address racism in the care of young patients. Could you just give a couple of those recommendations?

DOUGE: Sure. So one important one that we're asking physicians to do is actually identify their own biases. We're humans too, So we need to sort of check our biases as well so that we can provide optimal care. And that also includes creating a culturally competent inclusive environment. So that could be having our staff reflect the community that we're working in, making languages available, also the books that we read. Are we providing books that are bilingual? Are we providing books that have diversity of races and ethnicities?

So those are a few things that pediatricians can do. Working with families and even just acknowledging them and screening them for concerns, like if there's anxiety or depression, really taking a deep dive and finding, was there some incident at school that they witnessed that might be contributing to their stress and anxiety?

MARTIN: So before I let you go, I hope you don't mind if I ask - you are a physician. You're also a parent. You host several podcasts, including one about raising black children. I just want to ask you, as a practitioner but also as a parent, does this statement by the academy mean something to you?

DOUGE: Oh, yes, it does. It definitely matters. I'm a black woman. I have two black sons. I have a podcast. We talk about black parenting. I've had stress from when my kids have incidents in school, and to know that that's validated and that's acknowledged that that is a stress that can cause toxic stress that can lead to trauma.

And there are ways that we're engaging providers so that now they can talk to my kids about it, whereas before I didn't feel comfortable. Like, how would I have brought that up with my pediatrician? But now our pediatrician will have the tools to talk with our kids.

MARTIN: Have you heard from other pediatricians perhaps not of the same background about how they feel about having this statement delivered?

DOUGE: Yes. Some colleagues of mine who are white parents, they have tools to also talk to their kids. And even families of color, you know, they may not have talked to their kids before. Now there's an understanding, OK, I need to talk to my kids about it. There is that connection with health.

MARTIN: That was Dr. Jacqueline Douge, co-author of a recent policy statement on the effects of racism on children's health. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.