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
- 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.