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The Alarming Trends in Suicide Among Black Youth

Photograph by Twenty20

I remember when a 10th-grader at my school committed suicide. The young black girl handed out letters to some of her classmates thanking them for being her friend.

Even though the letter took the girls by surprise, the last thing on anyone’s mind was that she’d go down into her basement and hang herself that same evening.

We all found out the tragic news the following day. Everyone was in complete shock and began connecting all the dots. They realized that the note was her way of saying goodbye. If they understood the sign, her suicide could have been prevented.

It’s been over 15 years since that happened, and suicide rates among black children have increased. To make matters worse, suicidal kids are getting younger.

According to researchers, the rates among elementary school age black children have almost doubled since the 1990s. The Journal JAMA Pediatrics finds that although suicide rates of children between ages 5 and 11 remained stable between 1993 and 2012, the rate among black kids increased from 1.36 to 2.54 per 1 million children. However, the rate among white children have decreased tremendously from 1.14 to .77 per 1 million children during the same years.

Black children are often considered older and 'less innocent' than their white peers. Black girls are more harshly disciplined in schools than their white counterparts.

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When comparing the number of elementary school age suicides to adolescents and adults, the study finds that rates in young kids are much lower. However, it’s important to study the trend and find out the root of the problem.

The exact causes are unknown, but some speculate that suicide rates in black children stem from how they’re treated in school. Others feel that it may have a lot to do with health or just being product of their environment.

“While 'educational' systems are not fatal in the traditional sense, they can engender low self-esteem that subsequently kills motivation along with academic and intellectual performance,” says Dr. Rheeda Walker of Ebony Magazine.

She speculates that teachers are often unintentionally biased toward black children, even though they themselves are from different backgrounds and races.

Black children are often considered older and “less innocent” than their white peers. Black girls are more harshly disciplined in schools than their white counterparts. Dr. Walker also says that black preschoolers are twice as likely to be suspended from school than white preschoolers.

JAMA researchers write that "black youth may experience disproportionate exposure to violence or traumatic stressors, both of which have been associated with suicidal behavior. Also, research has shown that black youth are less likely to receive services for depression, suicidal ideation and other mental health problems compared with non-black youth."

They also suggest that children who took their own lives are more likely to have higher rates of ADD/ADHD.

Even though these experts suggest causes for why there is a rise in young black children committing suicide, there’s no clear distinction between children of mixed race and other minority groups. As a mom of biracial children, I want to know how kids like mine are affected.

Examples of warning signs include a child making suicidal statements, being unhappy for an extended period, suddenly withdrawing from friends or school activities, or being increasingly aggressive or irritable.

The closest they come to revealing any details about other minorities can be found from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data shows that Native American youth are at the highest risk of suicide (PDF) among all groups.

I'm concerned by a lack of information, but the important thing is to focus on why this is happening in the first place. That said, parents should know the warning signs before tragedy strikes.

"Examples of warning signs include a child making suicidal statements, being unhappy for an extended period, suddenly withdrawing from friends or school activities, or being increasingly aggressive or irritable," says Jeffrey Bridge, epidemiologist at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

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He also advises adults to ask children directly about suicide if there is a safety issue, despite claims that asking could trigger suicidal behavior.

The American Association of Suicidology also encourages parents to look for signals like trouble sleeping or sleeping all of the time, drug and alcohol use, dramatic mood swings and risky behavior.

When I think back to that young black girl who committed suicide, it makes me sad. I didn’t know her personally. But from what I remember, she was active in the drama club. She also appeared to have loyal friends. I'm not sure if her parents realized how she felt. Everything seemed fine.

But, then I think about that letter and realize that was the sign everyone missed.

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