Don't like to read?
Mental health experts are concerned over the rising number of suicides among young Black Americans. In the past few years, psychiatrists and therapists have begun to look at how living with racism contributes to suicidal ideation, particularly in children and adolescents.
Social media, bullying, daily doses of racial tension, and the senseless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of the police and vigilantes play a large part in a person’s decision to end their life. However, the suicide crisis is more complicated; many young people do not know who to trust.
For example, take the interaction between a Black adolescent and the psychiatrist tasked with helping her patient unpack the events that led to their suicide attempt. The conversation changed when the topic changed to racism.
Dr. Amanda Calhoun asked, “Do you think that racism plays are role in all of this?” She recalled the young girl had avoided eye contact until asked that question. “She looked at me suddenly, her carob-brown eyes widening with surprise.”
The patient nodded and started sharing with more openness. Their conversation moved from a vague discussion of depression to deeper isolation issues. She felt like she did not fit in and believed she “was punished more than her peers at her preparatory school.”
Dr. Calhoun was interrupted by the patient’s attending physician when she presented the evaluation that racism was central to the adolescent’s major depressive disorder and suicide attempt. “Nope. Racism isn’t the issue here,” the attending countered. However, the interaction led Dr. Calhoun to wonder if the attending was aware of the adverse “impact that predominately white spaces can have on Black individuals.”
Unfortunately, similar attitudes or lack of understanding are not uncommon among some doctors, since traditional medical training teaches that suicide is less of an issue in Black youth, according to Dr. Calhoun. The suicide rate for Black youth is increasing faster than any other racial or ethnic group, she added.
“Black people face increased rates of risk factors, including experiences of racism, higher rates of unemployment and financial and food insecurity, disparities in other aspects of health, and limited access to care, all of which result in an increased burden of mental illness in black communities,” the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) director, Dr. Joshua A. Gordon explained.
Despite the weight of this burden, racial and ethnic minority groups have historically had moderately low rates of suicide. That statistic changed. Suicide became the second leading cause of death among Black children ages 10-14 and the third leading cause of death for Black 15-19-year-olds as of 2018.
Mental health researchers examined suicide rates of children 12 and younger using data from 2001-to 2015. They found that Black children were more likely to take their own lives than their Caucasian peers, Dr. Gordon added.
More research is needed to understand how suicide ideation develops among Black youth and how it can be prevented. The crisis gained the attention of Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) and the Congressional Black Caucus, who rang the alarm. They raised awareness of the issue and established an Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health.
Congress’ report described vital research findings related to Black youth suicide. “Most importantly, it provides research, policy, and recommendations to address this issue, such as improving research funding for minority scientists and increasing funding for research focused on Black youth suicide and Black youth mental health,” according to the NIMH.
Mental health professionals agree that more research is needed. Significant questions remain regarding understanding and predicting suicide risk for Black children and adolescents. This is necessary since some research indicates that those who have contemplated or attempted to take their own lives are less likely to have a previous mental health diagnosis, according to Dr. Gordon.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
Scientific American: Suicide Rates Rise in a Generation of Black Youth; by Melinda Wenner Moyer
National Institute of Mental Health: Addressing the Crisis of Black Youth Suicide; by Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D.
EdSource: Black youth face rising rates of depression, anxiety, suicide; by Carolyn Jones
Psychiatric Times: The Missing Piece to the Puzzle of Black Youth Suicide; by Amanda Calhoun, MD, MPH
National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, & Mental Health: Chicago and Illinois Mental Health Agencies and Organizations
Featured and Top Image by Huston Wilson Courtesy of Unsplash
First Inset Image by Oxana Layashenko Courtesy of Unsplash
Second Inset Image Courtesy of Cathy Milne-Ware’s Flickr – Public Domain License