Why Are Suicide Rates for Black Kids So High, and So Ignored?

Article by Rheeda Walker, Professor of Psychology, University of Houston. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Teen suicide rates among black youth are increasing. In 2016 and again in 2018, national data revealed that among children age 5-11, black children had the highest rate of death by suicide. For the years 2008 to 2012, 59 black youth died by suicide, up from 54 in the years 2003-2007.

Also, the 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported that, compared to non-Hispanic white boys, black high-school age boys are more likely to have made serious suicide attempts that require medical attention.

I am a professor of psychology and also director of the culture, risk and resilience research laboratory at the University of Houston, and I recently co-authored a study that suggests that new risk profiles may be needed for better suicide prediction in African Americans in particular.

Comprehensive suicide awareness

Suicide has become a leading cause of death in the U.S. among all age groups, but particularly in youth and young adults. It is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds. Parents, teachers and professionals must be able to both talk about it and understand the risks for vulnerable children of any race. But those of us who work with black youth may also need to address some myths about suicide in the African American community.

For example, one such myth has its start almost three decades ago, Kevin Early and Ronald Akers’ interviews with African American pastors concluded that suicide is a “white thing” and that black people are accustomed to struggling through life challenges without succumbing to suicide. those authors concluded that black people see suicide as a “white thing” but it is a myth that black people do not die by suicide.

Based on anecdotal conversations that many others and I have heard in day-to-day conversations and that sometimes emerge in popular media, this opinion about suicide in the black community has shifted relatively little.

More importantly, black youth at risk may even be more difficult to identify than non-black youth. One study referred to college age racial/ethnic minority people, including African Americans, as “hidden ideators” who are less likely than other youth to disclose thoughts of suicide. Because suicide is occurring and at shockingly young ages, comprehensive efforts are needed to address this public health problem.

Studies suggest that stigma about mental illness and the feeling that one will be outcast further or ignored may keep black youth from sharing their thoughts. Also, public health and mental health experts may be unaware that suicide risk factors could show up differently depending on ethnic group.

Simply put, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for identifying suicide risk. And little or no action has been taken to address the increasing crisis. As an African American psychologist, I find this frustrating when children’s lives are lost – lives that could be saved.

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Source: The Conversation