- Bullying, racism, and mental health concerns contribute to increased suicide in Black children ages 5 to 12.
- Suicide rates for Black children (but not White children) between the ages of 5 and 12 increased from 1993 to 1997 and 2008 to 2012.
- Parents can talk to their children about suicide using honest, age-appropriate communication.
By Erica D. Marshall-Lee, Ph.D., and Naadira C. Upshaw, Psy.D., on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates
Mental health professionals are well-aware of the high rate of suicidal and parasuicidal behaviors for pre-teens and adolescents (Ruch et al., 2021). However, there is a chasm in this conversation regarding the alarming increase in the number of Black children between the ages of 5 and 12 who are dying by suicide. Recent data indicate that, compared with White children in the same age group, the suicide rate among Black children is two times higher. From 1993 to 1997 and 2008 to 2012, the suicide rate for Black children aged 5 to 11 years increased, while decreasing for White children the same age (Bridge et al., 2018). Research also yielded that the suicide rate for Black girls is increasing twice as fast as the rate for Black boys. This trend has gone unnoticed, and the truth is that data on suicide by Black children is lacking and woefully limited.
Black children are often regarded and treated as older than their chronological age, sexualized at younger ages (Teshome & Yang, 2018), and met with harsher consequences at school. It then follows that the mental health needs of Black children often go unaddressed, minimized, or ignored. According to a study by Nationwide Children's Hospital, when mental health concerns are recognized in Black children, they are generally related to behavioral disturbances (such as those characteristic of attention deficit hyperactive disorder). Their depression, anxiety and generalized distress are frequently overlooked.
Many cannot fathom how children so young might die by suicide. The explanation is partially exposure to suicide-related content. Many parents work vigorously to limit exposure to such material; kids still seem to find access. Oftentimes they are processing the content without the guidance of an adult. With the increased sensationalism of suicide and self-harm on social media and television, youth are exposed at a higher rate than ever before to messages about ending their life. While simply viewing such messages does not “make one attempt suicide,” there is a potential for internalizing the message that suicide is a solution to distress. Children can find themselves on a path to learn more about suicide that may even lead to a community of peers encouraging and endorsing these behaviors.
Racism, racial trauma, and bullying also play a significant role in the higher rates of Black child suicide. Racism is prejudice in which a member of one racial group deems themselves to be superior to another group. This may lead to antagonistic and/or discriminatory behavior against the perceived “inferior” group. Racial trauma is a form of race-based stress, which entails some Black individuals’ (and other marginalized individuals’) reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination. This can involve threats of harm and injury, humiliating and shaming circumstances, and/or witnessing discrimination toward other Black people and can be due to exposure and re-exposure to race-based stress. Further, the experience of internalized racism and feeling inferior in one’s everyday world can lead to low self-esteem and self-concept, making it difficult to picture one’s future being one of hope and peace. Bullying involves real or perceived power imbalance and is characterized by hostile and unwelcome interactions which can be repetitious and result in enduring significant difficulties. Bullying significantly contributes to youth suicide in general and is particularly weighty in suicide among Black children (Limbana et al., 2020).
Many parents shy away from conversations about suicide because they feel their child is too young, they don’t want to plant seeds leading to suicidal behavior, or they think that suicide is outside the realm of possibility for their kid. Communication ensures your child feels safe and understands you are open to candid, age-appropriate discussions about suicide. When communicating about suicide, parents should be straightforward and offer assistance, reiterating concern and support. Parents should discuss mental health and inquire about their child’s experiences with their peer group. Parents should provide opportunities for social support; encouraging networking with other trusted adults, especially if their child has difficulty opening up. Parents are encouraged to not take this personally, remembering that the goal is to get their child needed help. Parents may limit adverse messaging regarding suicide by monitoring and supervising social media and interactions with others online. It is important to have open dialogue about internet safety and to be thoughtful to not “shame” a child if they are engaged in inappropriate content, as this may lead to greater efforts to hide online engagement.
When a parent suspects mental health concerns in their child, it is essential to find a therapist to address them. Black children can benefit from talking to individuals who look like them for validation, safe spaces to talk, and as positive role models. Parents should discuss effective coping strategies (e.g., engaging in faith-based practices; journaling; extracurricular activities; relaxation exercises; asking for help). Finally, instead of asking “how was your day?” frequently yielding the “okay” response, parents might ask “what was good about your day,” “what wasn’t so great?” Parents should be curious about their children’s experiences and make attempts not to minimize what may seem to adults like “trivial school-age drama.” It is important for parents to be open regarding their own feelings to normalize that being “happy” all of the time is not realistic, and that people regularly experience a range of emotions. Parents should encourage their children to talk about their feelings, emphasizing that being “strong” does not mean being void of difficult feelings or happenings. Overall, high levels of parental supervision (as well as positive school engagement) serve as protective factors that contribute to children’s increased resilience, positive self-esteem, and identity (Janiri, et.al, 2020).
If you or your child are feeling suicidal, talk to someone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Bridge, J. A., Horowitz, L. M., Fontanella, C. A., Sheftall, A. H., Greenhouse, J., Kelleher, K. J., & Campo, J. V. (2018). Age-related racial disparity in suicide rates among US youths from 2001 through 2015. JAMA pediatrics, 172(7), 697-699.
Filby, M. (2021, September 9). Black children are twice as likely to die by suicide, Nationwide Children’s study finds. The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved from https://www.dispatch.com/story/news/2021/09/09/black-kids-more-likely-d…
Janiri, D., Doucet, G. E., Pompili, M., Sani, G., Luna, B., Brent, D. A., & Frangou, S. (2020). Risk and protective factors for childhood suicidality: A US population-based study. The Lancet. Psychiatry, 7(4), 317–326. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30049-3
Limbana T, Khan F, Eskander N, et al. (2020). The Association of Bullying and Suicidality: Does it Affect the Pediatric Population?. Cureus 12(8): e9691. doi:10.7759/cureus.9691
Ruch DA, Heck KM, Sheftall AH, Fontanella CA, Stevens J, Zhu M, Horowitz LM, Campo JV, Bridge JA. (2021). Characteristics and precipitating circumstances of suicide among children aged 5-11 years in the United States: 2013–2017. JAMA Network Open.
Teshome, T. & Yang, K.W. (2018). Not Child but Meager: Sexualization and Negation of Black Childhood. Small Axe 22, 160–170.