Suicide Prevention for Black Children Means Looking at Specific Risk Factors

Understanding the risk factors behind the increasing rate of suicide in Black children can lead to finding solutions that aid in saving the lives of our kids.  

Sad black girl on her front door with headphones
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Black children across the U.S. are currently experiencing a mental health crisis; our youth are dying by suicide at a disproportionate rate, and the numbers are steadily rising. Presently, Black kids between the ages of 5 and 12 are twice as likely to die by suicide as than white children of the same age. In a study of Black youth suicide for the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers found that although Black boys had a larger number of deaths by suicide between 2003 and 2017, the rate of suicide in Black girls was double the amount of Black boys. During this time, the suicide rate for girls increased by approximately 6.6% per year, with a majority being between the ages of 12 and 14.

With such significant upward trends, it is imperative to pinpoint the risk factors contributing to this crisis in order to discover tailored methods of resolution.

Intergenerational Trauma

Intergenerational trauma, the psychological and physiological effects of adversity and hardship that are passed down to subsequent generations, can affect the children of those who experienced it. This type of trauma can include things like attributes such as exposure to parental incarceration, poverty, abuse, addiction, and violence. Through epigenetic inheritance, altered genes, cultivated from going through traumatic experiences—, typically during early childhood—, are passed from parent to child.

Some researchers believe this path can go back as far as centuries, stemming from the circumstances of our ancestors. Dr. Joy DeGruy, an author and researcher of sociocultural theory and trauma theory frameworks, describes this process in a new theory- Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. P.T.S.S. details the causes of adaptive survival behaviors that are displayed in many African American communities. It is described as "a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery." With continued oppression following slavery, inclusive of over-policing, discrimination, poverty, medical racism, and little to no access to mental health care or healing resources, P.T.S.S. can display itself as depression, violence, and internalized racism.

Access to Mental Health Services

With the numerous disparities, Black people face within the healthcare system, finding adequate and affordable resources for mental health issues can be challenging. While rates of mental illness are virtually the same across ethnicities in the U.S., only about 25% of Black people seek treatment.

Discrimination in healthcare can result in misdiagnoses, like often being diagnosed with schizophrenia as opposed to mood disorders, and distrust in providers, further contributing to hesitancy to pursue help. Medical racism also plays a factor; those who that do seek help are less likely to be offered medication therapy or psychotherapy. Though there are organizations and programs that provide some type of mental health assistance, many lack the knowledge of their existence. Other factors including affordability and lack of insurance make paying for services like therapy difficult.

Additionally, the number of Black psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and other mental health professionals is lacking severely. Only 3.7% of the National Association on Mental Illness are Black; the percentage of Black members in the American Psychological Association is even lower at 1.5%.

Negative Stigma

Many members of Black communities are uncertain about seeking professional care for mental health issues. Thoughts centering the idea of seeking professional health for mental health issues in the Black community have often been met with uncertainty. Many consider illnesses like depression or severe anxiety as something that can be solved simply through prayer or as illegitimate and not to be taken seriously.

One national survey found that 63% of African Americans viewed depression as a weakness. This way of thinking creates an aversion to seeking therapy, diagnoses, and follow-up care. With this mindset, it can be hard for children to find adults they feel comfortable expressing themselves with to advocate on their behalf.

These negative viewpoints also prevent people from conducting research on mental health on their own. Lacking this information can lead to misidentification of symptoms and causal factors, missing personal red flags like emotional trigger points, and underestimating the importance of a healthy, well-balanced mind.

Finding Solutions

The first step we can take in preventing suicide and suicidal ideation in Black children is opening the floor to judgment-free communication, a space for our children to freely express themselves without the fear of being judged or critiqued. In a study from University College London, researchers found that children who perceived their parents as warm and responsive grew to have better mental health from early adulthood well into late adulthood.

Communicating more with our children can also make it easier to pinpoint small changes that may indicate a larger issue. These changes can include loss of appetite, alterations in sleep patterns, disinterest in regular hobbies and activities, and difficulty concentrating or staying focused.

Educating ourselves and those around us on the components of good and bad mental health along with risk factors and signs of depression, distress, and other mental health illnesses can aid in better identifying when something is wrong with our kids. Having regular contact with teachers and coaches can also prove beneficial, as they spend a significant amount of time with our children and may have the ability to provide insight on any inconsistencies in mood or behavior.

Early screening for anxiety and stress can help uncover issues before they become more complex. The United States Preventative Task Force currently states in a draft recommendation that children should start being screened regularly at the age of 8. Earlier diagnoses can be easier to treat, usually through some type of therapy as opposed to medication.

In seeking options and resources, there are various organizations, like Concerned Black Men of America, the Lee Thompson Young Foundation, and Black Girls Smile, that aim to erase negative stigmas surrounding mental health in the Black community and provide connections to Black therapists, scholarships, and funds for sessions.

With a combined effort from parents, teachers, mentors, and community members, we can work to reduce the negative outlook on pursuing mental health related assistance and support our youth in cultivating healthier, more positive minds.

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