Black suicide rates, once among the nation’s lowest, have risen dramatically among youths
As a kid, Kamesha Spates occasionally endured racial taunts or joking from other kids at school, knowing she could find comfort in the safety of home. But Spates, who is now a medical sociologist, worries that the rise of social media means the racism and discrimination children might experience is ever-present.
“When we were growing up there was bullying and teasing, but at the end of the school day when the bell rang you would go home and have a reprieve from those peer interactions,” said Spates, an associate professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. “Now, when kids are home, social media continues to find its way into their lives.”
That’s one factor Spates think could explain a troubling rise in suicide rates among Black youths in recent years, a crisis that has been simmering for two decades. Black suicide rates, among the nation’s lowest prior to 2000, have steadily climbed in the last two decades – and young Black people are most at risk: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates among those aged 10 to 24 rose 36.6% from 2018 to 2021, the largest percentage jump among any demographic.
The problem is particularly acute among girls: In 2020, suicide was the leading cause of death for Black girls aged 12 to 14, said Arielle Sheftall, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
“We don’t know why, and that hinders our ability to prevent these deaths from occurring,” Sheftall said. “That’s the scariest piece of all.”
A developing storm of contributing factors
Experts say the isolation of the pandemic worsened a situation already complicated by racism and discrimination, proliferating images of police brutality, community stigma around seeking mental health treatment, distrust of the healthcare system and a lack of culturally competent providers and Black representation in the field.
“In recent years, Black youth have witnessed increased inequities related to COVID, police brutality, racial unrest and hate crimes,” said Jenny Cureton, an associate professor of lifespan development and educational sciences at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Black youths who are multiracial, members of the LGBTQ community or in the criminal justice system are doubly vulnerable, she added.
A recent study found that Black children experience or perceive racism and discrimination at as young as six years of age; both are known factors for suicidal behaviors and thoughts among Black adolescents, “and unfortunately, that is trickling down to our younger Black youth,” Sheftall said.
Sheftall cited what researchers in the field call “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACES, as contributing factors; those can include domestic violence, loss of a parent or financial hardship. Black youth are more likely to be in environments – such as low-income neighborhoods or the foster care system – that expose them to such experiences, she said, and some, like racial discrimination, are culturally specific.
While the issues of systemic racism are not new, awareness of its realities has grown, with the internet and social media making it more visible to youths, whether through news coverage, hate speech, bullying or video footage. A 2022 Pew Research Center study found Black teens were more likely than any other group to say they were online almost constantly.
“Young people can clearly see that Black lives are devalued when they see images of people being brutalized on the internet and on TV,” said Sherry Molock, an associate professor of clinical psychology at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “And it’s not lost on young people that there are different consequences to their behavior. Those are systemic issues.”
Tapping the power of church networks
Molock, an ordained minister who has co-pastored a church in the Maryland suburbs for 15 years, was happy to listen when churchgoers would pull her aside before or after services to confess their feelings of depression, anxiety or suicide.
“But when I’d say, ‘Let’s talk about getting you into treatment’ – well, nobody really wanted to do that,” she said.
She knew that churches were trusted places in the Black community, that many people felt their problems could be solved there. But as a clinical psychologist, she also knew that while “praying is an important component, it’s not the only component.”
There had to be a way to bridge the gap between the church community, the mental health community and the research community, she thought. Eventually she developed a model that borrowed from both her ministry and clinical work.
With the help of New York state seed money, she partnered with two mental-health colleagues to launch a suicide prevention program targeting middle-school- and high-school-aged Black youths at African American churches in upstate New York. Called HAVEN (Helping to Alleviate Valley Experiences Now) Connect, the program educates pastors and church youth leaders about mental health issues, teaching them to use existing networks such as youth ministry and summer Bible camps to further a protective sense of belonging for young people.
It’s not so much crisis intervention, she said, as trying to prevent people from having crises in the first place.
“This is an underserved group of people, who don’t have access to treatment and face a lot of barriers,” Molock said. “When the three leading causes of death for Black youth are homicides, suicides and accidents, which are all preventable, that’s a disgrace. We should not live in a society where Black youth can’t thrive.”
Are communities prepared to handle the crisis?
Suicides in the U.S. had fallen for two years before rising to 48,183 in 2021, according to the CDC, nearly matching a peak of 48,344 in 2018.
Rates were highest among American Indians and Alaska Natives (28 per 100,000 people); that group also experienced the largest percentage rise in those three years, climbing by 26% compared to Black people (19.2%) and Latinos (6.8%). Meanwhile, rates fell by 4% among non-Hispanic white Americans.
Spates, of the University of Pittsburgh, recently led a team of researchers to a region of northeast Ohio where suicide rates among the local Black population had more than doubled from 2011 to 2021. They wanted to measure the readiness of local communities to address the issue, using various metrics to gauge their awareness of the problem and to what extent, if any, it was being addressed.
The team found that on average, communities were only vaguely aware of the situation, more often consumed with other issues such as substance abuse or mass incarceration.
Spates said the researchers plan to return to work with those communities to develop culturally relevant strategies tailored to their needs, citing the importance of involving communities in developing solutions.
“If you go in with a prevention effort and don’t talk to the community, it’s probably going to flop,” Spates said. “We want communities to be more ready than not. The more ready a community is, the more likely it is that their prevention efforts will be effective.”
‘Kids deserve to have good lives’
Sheftall, of the University of Rochester Medical Center, said one thing is clear: Whatever efforts have been made so far are not enough.
“The field of youth suicide has not really focused on subgroups so we are far behind in looking at what risk factors are for Black youth specifically,” she said. “We are now on the brink of folks paying attention to the problem.”
The solutions won’t be easy and will take cooperation between medical and grassroots institutions, community and faith-based organizations. Black youths themselves, she said, also need to be at the table.
“We shouldn’t wait until there’s a crisis in the village to respond,” she said. “Kids deserve to have good lives.”
Mental health and crisis resources
If you or someone you know needs mental health support, contact the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. Other resources include: