Emotional Literacy May be the Key Element in Combating Suicide in Black Children

Black children are twice as likely to die by suicide as white children are. Helping them to develop emotional intelligence can help reduce that risk.

Sad frustrated Black boy lying on bed with hand on face
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While the world is facing crisis after crisis, including COVID-19, the rising threat of monkeypox, global warming, and various other adversities, Black children are personally facing their own pandemic—an increasing rate of suicide and suicide attempts. In a detailed report from the Congressional Black Caucus, taskforce members stated that Black children under the age of 13 are twice as likely to die by suicide as their white counterparts.

Along with the common struggles of being a child, like bullying and social issues inside school walls, Black children are often overlooked and under-referred for gifted and advanced programs, misdiagnosed with emotional and behavior disorders, and face harsher punishments and suspensions. At home, they may also face adversities like inherited intergenerational trauma, socioeconomic challenges, and stressors from witnessing and experiencing traumatic events and discrimination, the effects of which mirror those of PTSD. Hindrances such as these can contribute to poor academic performance and a decline in mental health and physical wellbeing.

Seeking help with mental illnesses and the subject of mental health overall has been somewhat of a taboo topic in past generations within the Black community. Conditions that would be medically described as depression or anxiety were reduced to less nuanced terms such as stress, exhaustion, or "the struggle." With the rise of organizations like the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, Taraji P. Henson's nonprofit dedicated to providing support and improving access to mental health resources in Black communities, people are becoming more comfortable having these tough conversations and making the choice to seek assistance.

Often children are unaware of how to properly process their feelings or analyze emotions in effective ways. The process of assessing situations, taking the time to understand and process feelings, and choosing a proper path of action stems from a grasp of emotional literacy and development. Having a solid foundation of emotional intelligence, the ability to identify, comprehend and manage one's emotions, can provide benefits such as a greater sense of self-awareness, improved mental health and focus, better academic performance, and enhanced interpersonal communication skills, while a lower level of emotional competency may contribute to issues like depression and social anxiety.

Reuven Bar-On, a psychologist and one of the leading researchers in emotional intelligence, conducted studies outlined in the Bar-On Model of Emotional-Social Intelligence that suggest "the most powerful ESI competencies, skills, and facilitators that impact psychological health are (a) the ability to manage emotions and cope with stress, (b) the drive to accomplish personal goals in order to actualize one's inner potential and lead a more meaningful life, and (c) the ability to verify feelings and thinking."

Deficiencies in these areas "may lead to anxiety (an inability to adequately manage emotions), depression (an inability to accomplish personal goals and lead a more meaningful life), and problems related to reality testing (an inability to adequately verify feelings and thinking) respectively." Bar-On also conducted a study on university students, finding that the most successful pupils tended to be more emotionally and socially intelligent and that emotion management is vital to academic success.

Strengthening and Developing Emotional Intelligence in Kids

Growing up and hearing phrases like, "Children should be seen and not heard," or "Only speak when spoken to," may discourage kids from openly expressing themselves. Opening lines of communication within the household can let children know that their opinions and thoughts are valued. For example, using "I feel" statements puts more emphasis on the emotions of the person talking as opposed to placing blame on others and allows children to freely express themselves.

Emotional intelligence typically evolves through daily interactions and consistent communication. Since children are essentially human sponges, modeling appropriate behaviors can show children how to react and behave in tense situations. Using a diversified vocabulary when referring to emotions can also help children express feelings. As they age, words like mad, sad, and scared can be replaced with more descriptive and specific terms like angry or upset, depressed or miserable, and anxious or nervous.

Many teachers and caretakers are turning to the RULER method as a means of building emotional intelligence. RULER, an evidence-based approach to social-emotional learning cultivated by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Yale Child Study Center, is centered around five areas of emotional intelligence: recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating feelings and emotions.

Children are encouraged to execute the process by identifying their emotions, understanding why or what caused them to feel this way, expressing these feelings in an acceptable and appropriate manner, and managing subsequent actions while remaining self-aware and showing empathy towards others. It is imperative that children also understand to accept the emotions and perceptions of those around them while knowing it is okay to have disagreements with friends and loved ones. Sharing differing thoughts on ideas and situations can help children develop their own perspectives, enhance listening skills, and aid in creating solutions that work for everyone involved.

While still a fairly new concept, there are several tools and games available that promote emotional literacy. "How Am I Feeling?" a mother-ran and woman-owned game, features conversation cards with characters showing a range of different facial expressions, with questions on the back of each card to spark conversation about how the character feels. The Mood Meter app can be used to rate emotions, record how the user is feeling, and suggest recommendations on how to reach a more desirable mood.

A high level of emotional intelligence and competency can be essential to mental and physical health, academic success, and overall wellbeing. An alarming number of Black children are silently struggling because they currently do not have a thorough understanding of their emotions and effective ways to convey them. As their teachers, leaders, and parents, it is our job to provide tools to give our children a voice.

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