Researchers Sound The Alarm About Rising Suicide Rate Among Black Youth

(Dan Meyers via Unsplash)

In the span of just two weeks, two Black men were recently found hanging from trees in the Antelope Valley. Some believed they were lynched, arguing that a Black man wouldn't take his life in that way.

The case of Robert Fuller in Palmdale is still under investigation. The family of Malcolm Harsch, who was found in Victorville, said after reviewing footage from a nearby surveillance camera that it believes the 38-year-old took his own life.

We looked at suicide in the African American community, and found a complicated picture.

[If you or a loved one needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Los Angeles County maintains a 24-hour bilingual hotline at 800-854-7771]

In 2017, Black Californians died by suicide at less than half the rate of White Californians.

Statistics like these have long contributed to the narrative that suicide is a White phenomenon.

WRONG ASSUMPTIONS

"For a long time it was assumed that Black people really did not commit suicide at the level or rate that we often think of in the general population, and that in fact it was unusual to hear about a Black person committing suicide," said Dr. Altha Stewart, a dean at the University of Tennessee's College of Medicine.

But Stewart, who's also a former president of the American Psychiatric Association, said research is showing that those assumptions are wrong — at least regarding Black youth.

Studies have found the suicide rate among Black youth ages 5-11 is increasing faster than for any other racial or ethnic group. Researchers determined that for the 10-19 age group, it had nearly doubled between 2007 and 2017.

For those under age 13, Blacks are taking their own lives at twice the rate of Whites, according to Dr. Michael Lindsey, executive director of NYU's McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.

"It has been important for us to call out these trends and do the research to document it," he said.

"We can no longer afford for the face of suicide to be that of older White men," Lindsey said.

He noted that he worked on a study that found that between 1991 and 2017, suicide attempts by high schoolers decreased for Whites (by 7%), Latinos (by 11%) and Asians (by 56%). But the number went up significantly for Blacks — by 73%.

'I HOLD MY BREATH SCROLLING MY TIMELINE'

Lindsey and other experts are concerned that the current moment will have further negative mental health impacts on the Black community. COVID-19 is disproportionately harming African Americans, while at the same time images of police brutality and killings of Black people are ubiquitous.

"As a Black woman, I hold my breath scrolling my timeline, because there's just so many headlines," said Ashley Stewart, a researcher at USC. She worked on a recent study that looked at the mental health effects of exposure to traumatic events online — such as police killings — on people of color.

"Seeing these videos was in fact associated with symptoms of depression and PTSD," she said.

Stewart is curious about whether seeing these events online might be a factor in young people of color considering suicide.

Lindsey said he's often asked why we're seeing an alarming increase in suicidal behavior among Black youth in recent decades.

He doesn't have an answer, he said, because of a lack of research on the topic.

STRUCTURAL RACISM HINDERS RESEARCH

That's why Lindsey calls for more funding and a better pipeline to get researchers of color into the field to investigate the risk factors for suicide among Black youth.

"In this contemporary context, it's only going to make matters worse if we do not address these issues," he said.

Lindsey served on the Congressional Black Caucus' Emergency Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health. The task force found that Black scientists are less likely than their White peers to be awarded federal dollars for their proposed studies.

"The structural racism of research is not unlike the structural racism that governs clinical care and education in the health care arena," said the University of Tennessee's Stewart, who also served on the task force.

There are some signs of change in this area, though. Just last week, the National Institute of Mental Health put out a call for research on Black youth suicide, citing the task force report.

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