Suicide attempts among black children and teenagers have increased by 73 percent since 1991, according to a new study based on responses from 200,000 American high school students and published this month in the Journal of Pediatrics.
Suicide remains the second leading cause of death for teenagers in the U.S., but during the period studied, suicide attempts actually decreased among teens in every ethnic group—except African Americans.
The rise in suicide attempts among black adolescents is marked by higher levels of hopelessness, increased stigma around mental health issues, and lack of access to mental health care, said Sean Joe, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the researchers. “There’s potentially increased trauma in this population that’s not dealt with and a greater level of hopelessness for this population that we have never seen before,” he said.
In an author interview for Remember Henry Harris, retired Harvard psychiatry professor Alvin Pouissant—author of Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African Americans—talked of a “a fatalism about the future that you see in blacks—‘I can’t get anywhere, so why try? I will just kill myself.’” Pouissant compared it with “the kind of suicide you get frequently from inmates in jail. They’re not going anywhere. They know the future holds nothing for them. They don’t feel any good sense of power to change things.”
When Henry Harris died of suicide in 1974 at age 24, many of his friends did not believe it, because black suicide was considered such a rarity then. “Many white people felt there was a natural part of a black person to be able to withstand anything and still be happy go lucky,” Pouissant said.
“For blacks, going way, way back, there was a great stigma to suicide, because of our strong religious orientation, where suicide in many churches is seen as sin. Also there’s a stigma on the family,” Pouissant said. “So if someone didn’t tell you a person killed themselves, it was going to be put down as a heart attack. They [whites] would play down suicides among blacks to the point that blacks even believed they didn’t commit suicide.”
Dr. Joe, one of the study’s authors, said that for individuals who do get help, “we know that life does get better,” Joe said. “And these suicidal moments usually last about 10 minutes, so there’s opportunities for us to intervene. We do think you can make a difference.”
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Source: Jeremy Hobson and Samantha Raphelson, “Suicide Attempts Rise…,” WBUR, wbur.org/hereandnow