The unspoken crisis: Rising suicide rates among Black youth

It is already an alarming statistic that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among Americans, and it’s only getting worse. From 1999 to 2018, the suicide rate has increased by 35 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While suicide is increasing among all ethnicities, some people of color are experiencing higher rates than other groups. For example, American Indian and Native Alaskans have the highest suicide rate among all Americans. Conversely, the suicide rate for Black Americans is 60  percent lower than that of the non-White Latino population, and for Latinos the suicide rate is close to half the overall suicide rate.

However, there is a trend that is particularly alarming. Suicide rates are climbing among American youth: From 2007 to 2017, the rate for ages 10 to 24 increased by 56 percent and is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24. However, for Black youth, especially boys, the story is even more alarming as their suicide rates are increasing faster than any other racial/ethnic group, according to the executive summary of a report by the Congressional Black Caucus, “Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America”. From 1991 to 2017, suicide attempts by Black adolescents rose by 73 percent, while for young Black males, injury from suicide attempt rose by 122 percent — indicating they are using more lethal means, the study concludes.

Why the increase? 

Generally, psychological, environmental and social factors cause suicidal ideation, with mental illness as a leading risk factor. In turn, poverty levels affect mental health status, disproportionately affecting Black youth: Nearly 46 percent of Black children under the age of 6 live in poverty compared to 14.5 percent of White children.

From there, the likely explanations for the increasing rate start to snowball. For example, Black youth are much less likely to get treated for depression, a significant risk factor for suicide ideation, according to the report. Barriers to treatment include less health insurance coverage (compared to Whites), a mistrust of the system, and stigma around receiving care.

There are also stressors in young people’s lives that can lead to suicidal thoughts, such as bullying, family violence, physical and sexual abuse, gender identity and sexual orientation issues, and disciplinary problems. For Black youth, the problem compounds with the ongoing trauma of racism and its effect on mental health. One systematic review discovered that racism is twice as likely to affect mental health as physical health, leading to depression, stress, anxiety and more.

What’s to be done?

The report from the Congressional Black Caucus includes recommendations to address this rising crisis, ranging from increased research funding to the promotion of best practices to driving community awareness campaigns. Of particular interest to behavioral health stakeholders, the report suggests funding research on the following areas:

  • The effectiveness of depression screenings to help identify Black youth at risk for suicide
  • The practical, systemic and cultural barriers to treatment
  • Evidence-based interventions for mental health and suicide risk, especially those that are age-appropriate and culturally relevant for Black youth
  • Evidence-based interventions that show the effect of placing social workers and other mental health professionals in schools

The report further states that the racial gap in mental health services must be addressed, and its recommendations include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Develop a screening tool that identifies suicidal thoughts, ideation and self-harm, as well as a protocol on how to treat and connect Black youth to care
  • Develop a certification program for medical personnel, clinicians, school personnel and others who interact with Black youth in an educational or healthcare setting
  • Establish online and regional training programs for school-based personnel and mental health providers on how to recognize signs of depression, suicidal behaviors and other mental health problems

Historically, suicide has been viewed as a problem mostly affecting White Americans, and with the exception of Native Alaskans and American Indians, the data bear it out. However, the perception that suicide is a problem predominantly affecting Whites must change in order to address what the report calls a crisis among Black youth. To that end, the report recommends establishing a community engagement and awareness campaign directed at anyone who interacts with Black youth, including:

  • Youth, including LGBTQ youth
  • Clergy
  • Parents
  • Elected officials
  • Civic organizations
  • School and medical personnel

Beacon Health Options is working to ensure that we improve suicide prevention and care and address health inequities that impede that care. Whether you’re a teacher, member of the clergy, clinician, parent or policymaker, we call upon you to do the same.


12 Comments. Leave new

Suicide is the 10 th leading cause of death on the US not the leading cause – however it is still a very serious concern and one that requires significant heightened attention across the nation –

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Wanda McIntosh
September 2, 2020 5:39 pm

This new statistic is quite alarming to me not only as an African American woman but as a concerned clinician and Christian based counselor. I believe among other degrading statistics, there is still a resistance to connect with counselors and especially of others races. New strategies are needed in schools, churches, counseling centers and new cultural education for families and those in health care systems across the nation. It’s a big task but vitally necessary to stop the rise in this statistic and offer hope and value to save lives.

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Wanda, as a Caucasian male serving as a Community Care Director for a counseling center without any African American therapists, what strategies would you suggest we pursue?

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The dysfunctional thoughts that cumulatively develop suicidal ideation comes from a core belief that the world would be better off without them.

Black males in particular, have experienced real life systemic and overt racism, limited access to treatment, poor quality treatment in medical, legal, occupational, financial, educational settings… And just about every Walk of Life.
There is a special caveat we need to acknowledge that exists… We need to acknowledge that the court systems in place intentionally disenfranchises black people in general especially the black male.

In therapy, we typically challenge those negative thoughts and reframe the experience that might exacerbate those thoughts. However, the correlation between the increase of instances of social injustice, police brutality, and a general sense of hopelessness that has swept the nation regardless of your race or demographic due to covid-19, further complicates challenging these experiences that reinforces the dysfunctional thought process of doing the world a favor by no longer being alive.

We do have to address a lot of the external causes to this uprising in Black suicide and the we must validate the experiences instead of gaslighting someone experiencing the consequences of their black skin into thinking that it’s a figment of their imagination.

Validation and a strengths based treatment plan that acknowledges these barries that exist and how to navigate through a systems in a nation that was created to create unnecessary obstacles to reach your greatest potentials and reinforcing the strength that they have in making it this far.

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Yes, I very much resonate with Porsche Monic Terry’s comments. There is a systemic disenfranchisement that happens to Black Youth and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPoC) in general which is a driving force in the risk factors associated with suicide.

Another key factor to managing this, in whatever settings a mental health professional (MHP) works, would be to explore, develop, and maintain cultural responsiveness to these realities on both an individual and entity level.

All systems have an inherent design to oppress melanted/marginalized individuals. This has created an obligation in us to not just be aware but to be active in our methods of identifying and combating the ways in which that oppression may manifest through our work. An example being diagnostic biases and the ways it is affected by the intersection of “Black” and “Cis-Male”. It’s been shown that Black cis-males are less likely to receive diagnoses with strong correlations to suicidality. Imagine the helpful outcomes gained if the MHP consistently presumes a bias has been activated with each client and challenges that bias in an effort to combat the internalized “perception that suicide is a problem predominantly affecting Whites”. This is one small yet significant way to assure we can then make the most of certification courses, screening tools, etc. as well as to err of the side of caution, increase cultural responsiveness, and maintain due diligence.

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Donna J. Boundy
September 2, 2020 6:54 pm

An additional reason for black youth not getting the needed help is that there is a profound lack of effort to enroll black students in social work and other counseling training schools, lack of effort to recruit said professionals. In my area, there is exactly one therapist of color. I myself have a black son who wants and needs therapy but understandably wants to see someone who can fully “get” his lived experience. This is a huge contributor to black youth not getting the help they need. Imagine if there were no female therapists, or no male therapists–it would be seen as the emergency it is. Well, there are few POC therapists–and it’s an emergency!

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I agree the data is very alarming. As a Psychologist in PP, I think Black youth are so underrepresented in seeking therapy. We have to place more mental health professionals in the school and work on getting the stigma away from Mental health issues. We need to reach more youth especially B;lack youth in the present environment. Society needs to do more. We as professionals in Mental health need to do much more to reach out

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C. Ray Roper-LCSW/MAC
September 2, 2020 9:24 pm

As an LCSW with almost 30 years on the field and as the Pastor of a church in the middle of one of the “underserved” areas of Dallas, Texas I see the disparity, the lack of motivation due to family disregard for higher education, the loss of hope because of the overexposure to the injustices our youth face in our society. As a Pastor/Counselor I try to reach our youth (especially our young male future leaders) with not only faith based counseling but also “fact based counseling”, not “gaslighting@ the reality of their world while at the same time validating and motivating them aspire for better. As one who grew up in “the will wild West Dallas “ in the 70’s and 80’s I more than understand their situation and have pushed the MH community for years to have a more inclusive approach to this now epidemic.

C. Ray Roper- LCSW/MAC
Pastor Teacher Christ Way MBC
U.S.A.F. (Ret.)
Desert Storm Veteran

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There are so many factors that drive these figures, which are alarming. Any strategic plan should be inclusive of stabilization of the family unit, and to strengthen the supports for the family. So often the youth of our broken and dysfunctional families seek a sense of belonging in inappropriate and detrimental groups. Treatment should be inclusive of fostering healthy group activities which strengthen the ego, identify individualized strengths and celebrate both separateness and diversity.

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Mary Grace Ventura
September 3, 2020 7:09 pm

I appreciate the information you provided. Thank you so much.

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This is another example of the pandemic has brought to light yet another area too long has been in the shadows. Either this is a problem that has been unheard of or the pandemic has brought it to light. As a therapist treating African American adolescent this is alarming news. This is something we as mental health professionals has to get a hold of. Suicide has been a “taboo” in the African American culture. “Silent is detrimental.” If we see this is something that is happening to our young people we need to get a hold of.

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