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Suicide

A Staggering Increase in Suicide Among Black Youth

Distress and suicide among the young have increased during the pandemic.

Key points

  • For the first time in recent history, suicide is higher for Black children than for white peers.
  • The Black community's resources to reduce suicide significantly include mentoring, broaching the topic, and destigmatizing mental health.
  • The most important thing we can do for young people is to take the time to be a consistent presence in their life.
Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels
Source: Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

The tragedy of Regina King’s son, Ian Alexander, Jr., dying by suicide has sent waves of sadness and fear through the nation. Reading about the close relationship they shared, knowing the deep bond that is often present between Black mothers and their sons, made this news particularly painful.

Learning of Cheslie Kryst’s death by suicide was another tragic blow, reminding us that professional success does not protect us from deep pain. This has only heightened our fear. The thought of losing one of our young people scares us, and we are seeing a staggering increase in suicides among our Black youth.

Increase of Suicide in Black Youth

Recently the attorney general reported that mental distress and suicide of young persons has significantly increased during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, in 2019, one in six adolescents reported making a suicidal plan in the previous year, an increase of 44 percent since 2009.

For Black youth, it was even worse, with an increase of 80 percent during the same 10-year period. Since the pandemic, the number of suicidal thoughts and behaviors of Black youth has increased. For the first time in recent history, Black children are nearly twice as likely to die by suicide than white children.

Anytime a suicide occurs, family, friends, and those in the community want to know why it happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. But the reasons for suicide are not fully understood. There is a range of causes that include brain chemistry, environment, and situational factors that are far too complex for us to pinpoint a single cause.

Parents silently fear they may be to blame, friends feel guilty they did not reach out more, teachers and youth pastors question what they missed. Like Job’s friends in the Old Testament, perhaps if we can lay blame, we can assure ourselves that this won’t happen again.

Suicide Prevention

We can’t know why a particular person committed suicide. But thankfully, we know that there are things we can do to help reduce the chances that our young people will take their lives.

The first thing we must do, as adults, is intentionally work to build relationships with the young people in our community. The Center for Disease Control has found that the childhood experience most likely to foster resilience in young people with high rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences, such as abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, is a positive relationship with one or more adults outside of their home. This means we have the resources in our communities to increase the general well-being of many of our youth.

We know that people who are suicidal are likely to suffer from two prevailing thoughts, “I am alone” and “I am a burden.” We know that social isolation increases the likelihood of suicide. The most important thing we can do for young people is to take the time to be a consistent presence in their life. Mentoring has proven to have multiple benefits for young people, increasing their self-esteem and self-worth and improving their mental health.

The second thing we must do is be willing to broach the topic. As we build close relationships with young people in our community, we have to be willing to ask direct questions such as “Have you thought about taking your life?” Or “Do you ever wish you weren’t alive?” Or “Do you ever wish you would go to sleep and now wake up in the morning?” The thought is so terrifying for parents that they often do not ask. But it is important for adults who can serve as a non-anxious presence in the life of young people to inquire about suicidal thoughts once a good relationship has been established. By asking direct questions, we then know when we need to advocate for a child or adolescent to get the professional help they need.

We know that suicides are often committed by people with diagnosable mental health disorders. I’ve been encouraged to see many more Black people entering into the mental health professions. As a result of this increase in representation, we see a rise in Black individuals and families seeking mental health care. The stigma and shame around therapy are decreasing as many Black people in positions of fame and power speak out on their mental health struggles.

The pandemic has been devastating for the Black community in so many ways, and we are seeing that our children and adolescents may be taking it the hardest. Loving and affirming our youth is critical to the future of our people.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Center for Disease Control. (2022, February 19). Suicide prevention: Risk and protective factors. https://www.cdc.gov/suicide/factors/index.html

Center for Disease Control. (2022, February 19). Adverse childhood experiences. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/

Center for Disease Control. (2022, February 19). Creating positive childhood experiences. https://www.cdc.gov/injury/features/prevent-child-abuse/

Murthy, V. H. (2021). Protecting youth mental health: The U.S. surgeon general's advisory. https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-youth-mental-he…

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