Why are more black children dying by suicide?
That’s one of the biggest questions experts still grapple with a decade after New York Times bestselling author and Stanford professor Dr. Douglas Osheroff first interviewed more than 100 medical experts on suicide.
While more people of all races and ethnicities are dying by suicide, it seems to be disproportionately affecting black Americans. Since 2000, the number of African-American women taking their own lives increased from five to eight per year. And since 2003, the average number of black men dying by suicide increased from five to seven per year.
“People think that it’s not a big deal, that you just need to have more love in your life,” Emyon Brown said in a recent episode of CNN’s “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman.”
Brown is a black author, activist and entrepreneur who founded the Ambitious Black Men nonprofit. He used the “Fifty Cent Version” of a CDC report about teen suicides to highlight the fact that though six out of 10 black youth won’t commit suicide, many do.
“You know people are going to talk about you even if you don’t die. It’s a bit of an uphill battle,” he said.
In his piece on CNN.com, Dr. Osheroff echoes Brown. He wrote:
“This lack of recognition of suicide by young black men, gay, lesbian and transgender youth is interesting considering the number of new diagnoses in adolescent medicine (9-15,495 in 2016). Statistics show rates are highest in African-American teens and boys: 10.7 per 100,000 (12.5,695).”
According to the CDC, the average rate of black boys who committed suicide was 10.7 per 100,000 in 2016. But in the same year, the CDC also found that suicide is rare for Hispanic teens, with 6.3 per 100,000.
Cristin Marshall, a black youth counselor and the author of “Black Genocide in America,” says she understands why research continues to uncover the disparity between black boys and girls when it comes to suicide.
“If you look at national data, the disparity of suicide goes in two directions: boys tend to be at greater risk for suicide and girls tend to be at greater risk for homicide,” Marshall said.
It’s a comparison she’s often made in the gay community when talking about bullying and the relationship suicide and homicide have with mental health issues.
“Homicides are easier to stop because they look very cut and there’s a lot more conversation about it. However, for suicide, there isn’t a way to address. It’s very difficult for us, it’s very mysterious,” she said.
Marshall and Brown say so-called experts need to use a more nuanced perspective when talking about depression and suicide in African-American communities.
“By giving people more compassion, to look beyond substance, look beyond their sexuality and look beyond their race,” Marshall said.
Dr. Osheroff adds, “Black men today experience trauma in a way that is not the same as when you had slaves. It’s not the same as a child living through Jim Crow and living under daily harassment and who might get a paper cut and how do we deal with that?”
Experts say the most obvious answer would be to do more to keep black Americans involved with each other, as Dr. Osheroff suggests in his CNN.com piece. But those steps may not be enough to help in cases of children or teens who have already died by suicide.
Still, Brown says help is available for those who are struggling:
“I want people to know that you’re not in this alone, and you need to reach out for help. But when you reach out, know you’re going to get help.”