The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions says Black youth now have the fastest rising suicide rate among races. Information, based on death certificates, says the rate of gun-based suicides increased among Black youth even as incidences of gun-related homicides dropped. Their report, “Still Ringing the Alarm: An Enduring Call to Action for Black Youth Suicide Prevention”, offers no single solid reason for the uptick in suicide, however.
In the 13-year period between 2007 and 2020, the suicide rate among Black youth ages 10–17 increased by a whopping 144%. Black boys ages 0–19 showed a rate of more than twice that of Black girls in their age group. Additional CDC research specific to Mississippi youth, however, showed a different break between genders. In that data, 23% of Black female respondents had seriously considered attempting suicide during the 12 months before the survey, and 12% of Black males. Sixteen percent of Black respondents said they’d made a plan on how to go about ending their lives, which included 21% of Black girls and 10.6% of Black boys. Seventeen percent of Black respondents went so far as to make the attempt through pills or some other means. Again, in Mississippi, girls were closer to suicide than males, with more than 19% of girls making the attempt and almost 15.4% of boys. The numbers for LGBTQ kids was even worse, with 36% of Black girls and 20% of Black boys formulating a suicide plan.
Damien Thomas, clinical director of Resilience Counseling & Recovery Center, LLC, in Flowood, MS, said he has been studying the numbers for years, and still acknowledges the causes “are inconclusive.”
Poverty, or No?
Researchers at both Johns Hopkins and the CDC have managed to nail down no single major factor fueling the uptick. Some sociologists suggest adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) could be a factor. Examples of ACEs conditions include domestic violence and parental loss through death, divorce or the prison system, as well as other subsequent problems that arise of financial hardship. Black youth are more likely than other races to be overrepresented in high-poverty environments that contribute to ACEs, and research already acknowledges that young people are more likely to die by suicide in high-poverty communities.
In addition, Black children suffer a heavier load of day-to-day racial discrimination, which makes suicidal thoughts three times more likely according to studies. However, poverty, racism and being Black in the U.S. has been inextricably linked for centuries, making an ACE connection difficult to prove. The U.S. has never prized its Black children, nor has it labored to protect them from harm and poverty. But numbers suggest Black children enjoyed a decades-long resistance to suicide in the face of centuries of race-related hardship, and that that resistance only recently began to tic upward. Black adolescents had the highest increase in the prevalence of suicide attempts between 1991 and 2019, nearly 80%, compared with all other races/ethnicities, including white children, 17.8% and Hispanic, 13.4%. These are confounding numbers for a generation that arguably has more potential for growth than previous Black generations thanks to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and five decades of inclusive laws, policies, and court decisions.
Thomas said social media issues, cyber-bullying, and exposure to social influences could be aggravating ACEs. But Thomas said there was nothing magical about decades of Black youth resistance to suicidal ideation, not when there were so many other factors that could be skewing numbers and reports, such as stigma regarding suicide in the Black community.
“We know that some ER visits, for things like drug overdose can get categorized as ‘heart attack,’ or some other medical issue as opposed to drug overdose, so there’s some gray area regarding causes of death in some reports,” Thomas said. “Do parents have some influence over death certificate information? I don’t know. I think it depends on what region of the country you live in, how that hospital is run, and a lot of different factors. Maybe they could, but that’s a question for a medical director.”
For now, it is unclear if the increase in suicide and suicide ideation among Black youth has any connection to honest self-reporting from parents and declining community stigma. Therapists and counselors agree, however, that parents and the community are in the best position to detect clues of impending suicide, no matter how stressed, distracted and overworked those parents and communities are. Schools can only do so much.
A 2022 report from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that providing mental health services in a school setting can be difficult.
“The majority of schools (54 percent) reported that their efforts to provide mental health services to students were limited in a major way by inadequate funding,” the report claims. “Forty percent reported inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals as a major limitation.” Other obstacles included unclear policy and legal issues.
The Jackson Public School District, whose student body is more than 90% Black, did not immediately respond to an information request on the number of licensed mental health professionals the district employs, including psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioners, psychiatric/mental health nurses, clinical social workers, and professional counselors. Jackson Public School Board member Frank Figgers said he believed students needed all the mental health professionals the district could afford but could not say if every school had its own licensed professional. The more affluent Madison County School District also did not respond to info requests in time for publication.
The Work Falls to Parents
Thomas said kids don’t always broadcast their intent, however. Ferreting out suicidal ideation requires vigilance, but also tremendous self-honesty. To see the storm coming, a parent must be willing to acknowledge their worst fears, even when they’re busy trying to get through their day and pay the bills.
“You have to look and see if there are any changes in the young person’s daily routine, eating habits, sleeping habits, social activities, if there’s anything specific to their friend group that has changed, if they are no longer engaging with friends. In this case we’re looking for social isolation,” said Thomas.
This is no easy task, considering parents are often too busy to even recognize their child’s circle of friends for that month. Changes in GPA, after-school activities and personal interests can be another cue. Some of the more obvious signs of suicide include the child giving away valued possessions, because it doesn’t just happen in the movies and Netflix shows. Another, even more insidious, sign is a sudden, suspicious upbeat attitude.
“Sometimes you’ll have a kid with a mental health issue or some other emotional problem and they’ve been struggling with it for years, and then there is a subtle shift in how this person is responding, totally opposite of what they were,” said Thomas. “We call those ‘miracle cures,’ where they’re actually smiling, and they seem to be doing better but in actuality they are already planning to go ahead and act (on a suicide.)”
Thomas added that it is extremely hard for parents to admit when they see the signs. Most parents are hopeful optimists when it comes to their children, and they’re willing to take this sudden good behavior at face value. “It's hard to pinpoint something like that because hopeful parents want to know that things have improved, and things are getting better. If there’s a sudden improvement in your child without having gone through the process of changing and improving, then that’s when the red flags go up.”
Above all, a parent must not be afraid to speak frankly with their teen. Asking and talking about suicide can devolve into a cringy spat, but it works, however painful the conversation. Talking generally decreases the likelihood of suicide, not increases it.