Suicide Among Young Black Women and Girls is a Mental Health Crisis Hiding in Plain Sight

Dionne Monsanto holds a portrait of her daughter, Siwe, in the girl’s bedroom in New York City, on Sept. 9, 2020. Siwe, 15, died by suicide in 2011. (Elias Williams for TIME)

When Dionne Monsanto was pregnant, she decided that she wanted to find a name that means “blessing” for her daughter. Though Monsanto—a Black American—has no specific ties to South Africa, she chose the name Siwe, an adaptation of the Zulu name Busisiwe.

Siwe grew to be a talented artist. “She was brilliant. She was beautiful. She was a writer. She was a guitar player. She was a dancer,” her mother says. Siwe was such a gifted dancer that, at age 10, she received a scholarship to the extracurricular program at the prestigious Ailey School in her hometown of New York City. But Siwe was also often troubled. From early on, Siwe “was very emotional, and would tend to cry a lot,” Monsanto says in the quiet of the Harlem studio where she used to teach yoga and West African dance before the studio closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Siwe was diagnosed with anxiety and depression at the age of 9. Schoolwork worsened her anxiety. But, Monsanto says, most adults and peers in her daughter’s life didn’t have much awareness of mental-health issues, and were ill-equipped to help.

“What I would get from doctors was like, ‘Well, she’s a girl, you know, her period is starting’—dismiss,” says Monsanto. But she knew there had to be something more going on. “I couldn’t identify it,” Monsanto says, “but I felt it.” Then, in the summer of 2011, at the age of 15, Siwe took her own life.

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In the 10 years since Siwe died, stories like hers have become all too common. Across the board, suicide rates among young Americans have risen; from 2007 to 2018, suicide rates for Americans ages 10 to 24 rose by 57%, and the increase was particularly significant among young girls, contributing to a narrowing of the persistent suicide gender gap. Rates plateaued from 2018 to 2019—the most recent year with available federal data—but they stood far higher than those of decades past. A multinational study published in the Lancet Psychiatry in April found that U.S. suicide rates actually decreased somewhat during the early months of the pandemic, compared to the year before it—but given spiking anxiety and depression rates during the pandemic, which studies suggest took a particularly harsh toll on young people, there’s good reason for continuing concern.

Girls of color are increasingly accounting for this trend. According to one 2019 Pediatrics study, the number of white children attempting suicide in the U.S. decreased from 1991 to 2017, while the number of Black children attempting suicide went up. All told, about 15% of Black female high school students attempted suicide in the year leading up to the CDC’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, compared to about 9% of white female students and about 12% of Hispanic female students. Actual suicide death rates for Black American girls ages 13 to 19 increased by 182% from 2001 to 2017, according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Community Health.

“Black youths are two times more likely to die by suicide compared to their white counterparts,” says Arielle Sheftall, a researcher at the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and one of the authors of the 2019 Pediatrics study. Now, she says, “we’re trying to figure this out.” There’s rarely a single thing that drives someone to attempt suicide, and similarly there are many factors—from bullying to stigma to childhood trauma and racism—but no one cause that could help to explain the increase in suicides among Black youth. “We want to intervene, but we don’t know what the best intervention is yet,” Sheftall says. “It’s going to take a village, to be honest, to uncover what” could help reverse the trend, particularly when no two suicide deaths are exactly alike.

In Siwe’s case, there may have been a devastating trigger. When she was 11, she was sexually assaulted by her father, from whom Monsanto had separated eight years earlier but was co-parenting with at the time. Monsanto says she learned about the incident directly through Siwe’s father; he was arrested shortly after for his crimes and ended up being incarcerated for four years. The impact on Siwe was cataclysmic. “A piece of my daughter died that day,” she said in a 2019 talk for Dadasphere, an organization that aims at giving a voice and a platform to women of color, primarily from Africa, but also around the world. Sexual violence often has a long-term effect on victims. They are more prone to depression and having suicidal thoughts than the general population; a 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that 75% of victims of sexual assault experience “socioemotional problems,” a number that is higher than for almost every other crime. “It was the trigger that took her over the edge,” says Monsanto. Indeed, Siwe attempted suicide for the first time when she was 12 years old.

Over the next three years, Siwe continued to struggle, feeling pressure to succeed at school, in her extracurricular life and socially. On June 29, 2011, Monsanto woke her daughter before leaving their home, but Siwe crawled back under the covers in protest. Monsanto left for an appointment with the heads of Robert Louis Stevenson School, which she was considering as a possible transfer destination for Siwe; her daughter’s mental health had been declining, and she thought a change of environment could help. In the middle of the meeting, Monsanto’s Blackberry started ringing. She ignored it. The phone rang again. Her neighbor was trying to reach her. She ignored the call a second time, but the third time it rang, Monsanto picked up.

“It’s Siwe,” her neighbor said.

Monsanto ran out to the street, and hailed a taxi to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. When she arrived, she was stopped at the front desk, where she was told that a child without identification had been admitted for attempted suicide. Monsanto was led to a back room, where she showed pictures of Siwe and herself to a detective and a social worker to verify her relationship with her daughter. They led her through what seemed like endless hallways and turns. As she neared Siwe’s room, Monsanto saw a doctor standing outside the door who seemed visibly distressed.

“We’re too late. She’s already dead,” she murmured to herself. She was right.

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SOURCE: TIME, Kyra Aurelia Alessandrini

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