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Why are “suicidal thoughts” amongst Black youth on the rise?

By Alysha Conner

Suicidal thoughts in a person under the age of 18-years-old may seem unfathomable to most people.

However, suicide has become a rising epidemic, and one of the leading causes of death in adolescents worldwide.

Several studies have also shown that there has been a shockingly reported increase in suicide rates among African-American youth nationwide.

Recent findings have confirmed that Black boys and girls, between five and twelve-years-old, are taking their lives at approximately twice the rate of white kids the same age.

Inherited cultural stigmas within communities of color have ultimately led to a lack of mental health conversations or concerns.

People of color often associate mental illnesses with feelings of embarrassment or inadequacy.

Mental health issues and misconceptions have inevitably persisted in Black communities as a result of educational shortcomings, in addition to healthcare coverage scarcity.

“There are not enough minorities working at mental health care facilities. I think people don’t always feel comfortable seeking mental health services. We know that African-Americans are much less likely to use mental health services. One reason for this is the lack of access to care. Even with the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the states that chose not to expand Medicaid, are heavily African-American in the South,” Jeanne Miranda, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California Los Angeles, stated.Former President Barack Obama implemented the ACA in 2010, as a solution for the health insurance market reform. However, the Trump administration has made several changes to the ACA since then. Recent ACA changes have prevented many people of color from obtaining healthcare coverage or hindered the likelihood of such people to sign up. Kaiser Family Foundation reported in 2017 that 14% of African-American adults between 19 to 64-years-old were uninsured, including 5% of African-American children ages 0 to 18-year-old.

Changes made by the Trump administration to the ACA have consisted of: decreasing funds for advertising and assistance with enrollment; eliminating cost-sharing subsidies; repealing the requirement to have health insurance; encouraging states to impose new eligibility requirements on Medicaid recipients; proposing new small business health insurance regulations; imposing short-term health plans to compete with ACA marketplace plans; weakening the contraceptive mandate; and stricter requirements to sign-up.

Jeff Bridge, an epidemiologist from the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, declared, “We really need to understand what are the risk and protective factors for not only suicide but suicidal behavior in young people of color.”

Past and present incidents of adverse treatments inflicted on African-Americans have undoubtedly led to the mistrust of authorities within the Black community. According to Mental Health America, risk factors for suicidal behavior experienced by people of color can stem from historical adversity, such as slavery, sharecropping, and institutional oppression. Moreover, socioeconomic status can become linked to a person’s mental health status. Socioeconomic disparities like race-based exclusions from health, educational, social, and economic resources, can also contribute to altered health behaviors in African-Americans. People who are impoverished, homeless, or incarcerated are more likely to suffer in terms of mental health as well.

Dr. Joy Degruy, internationally renowned researcher, educator, and author, developed the Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (P.T.S.S.) theory, after 12 years of quantitative and qualitative research. She went on to publish her findings in her book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.” P.T.S.S. is the explanation of behaviors, beliefs, and actions associated with multi-generational oppression experienced by enslaved Africans and their descendants. The book addresses and evaluates the residual impacts of the Atlantic slave trade. Dr. Degruy introduces the discussion of how the Black community can transform both positive and negative generational adaptive behaviors to ensure the advancement of African-American culture.

During one of her seminars, Dr. Degruy professed, “Let’s do the math. Hundreds of years of trauma. No treatment. Freed. More trauma. Still, no treatment. Do the math. Do you think there may be residual impacts of that trauma? Of course, there is. It didn’t end friends, and it hasn’t ended yet. So I think on one point, African people and people of African descent are extremely resilient. Matter of fact, I think we’re a miracle.”

“We’ve done everything we’ve done thus far with no help. As though it were possible, we escaped injury in all those hundreds of years, and the years that followed. So what happens is, you learn from the significant others in your environment. If they’re broken, guess what, you’re going to be? You’re learning from broken people, and you’re normalizing that behavior. Then it becomes, years later in 2008, ‘that’s their culture.’”

Systemic oppression is one of the most detrimental underlying causes of mental health illnesses within the African-American community. Negative stereotypes and attitudes of rejection continue to occur with measurable adverse consequences. A new study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology revealed that rates of depression among kids 14 to 17 years old, increased by more than 60% between 2009 and 2017. The study also found that in 2017, more than one in eight Americans ages 12 to 25 experienced a major depressive episode. Experts have examined the school-to-prison pipeline, which is the process of criminalizing African-American youth through the education system, as one of the causes linked to the rise of suicidal thoughts amongst Black youth.

“There’s also quite compelling evidence of this school to juvenile justice to prison pipeline, which shows that African-American kids are punished more severely in schools. When we started seeing these zero-tolerance policies, it primarily ended up falling on the heads of African-American children. They are disproportionately or more severely punished for the same violations of school rules. That is setting them up for failure in a system,” UCLA professor Jeanne Miranda proclaimed.

Potential warning signs of suicidal ideation include mental mood disorders, alcohol and substance abuse, family history of suicide, previous suicide attempts, social isolation, chronic disease and disability, and lack of access to behavioral health care. However, symptoms can vary depending on age, culture, sex, and other characteristics. Additional risk factors are bullying and imitation of suicide behavior by other youngsters. By nature, adolescents are a vulnerable group, thus making them more likely to be prone to mental health problems.

September is recognized as National Suicide Prevention Month, to build awareness further, and continue the fight against the suicide epidemic. Several programs and resources are currently accessible for preventive measures. American music industry executive, marketing consultant, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author Shanti Das, launched her Silence the Shame mental health movement in 2016. Silence the Shame is a non-profit awareness, education, and advocacy organization. Das founded the initiative as a result of her ongoing battle with depression. The organization serves as a foundation to eradicate stigmas, and normalize conversation relating to mental health and wellness.

(Courtesy/Silence the Shame)

Key suicide prevention strategies for adolescents are ensuring that individuals with suicide risk have timely access to evidence-based treatments or appropriate clinical interventions. Another prevention method for adolescent suicides is maintaining healthy connections through supportive relationships, community involvement, and participating in social programs. The stronger the connections kids have to their families, friends, and people in the community, the less likely they are to harm themselves. It is essential that youth of color feel loved and supported, as well as have people to turn to when they are struggling or feel challenged.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, and visit suicide prevention websites like silencetheshame.com for additional resources.

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