As we continue Black History Month, I want to tackle an often taboo subject in the black community: suicide, particularly, Black children’s suicides. If we are to help our children, we must have these conversations; we must destigmatize this subject and speak frankly, openly and honestly.
The theme for Black History Month 2022 is Black Health and Wellness which includes mental health. Mental health in the black community is not on par with physical health; even more so, this is the case with child mental health.
The past two years have been difficult, and many of our children are coping with innumerable challenges. Now more than ever, we need to focus on their mental health and wellness.
We need to address the growing issue of Black children’s suicide.
High Profile Suicides in the Black Community
Recently there have been two suicides of high profile African Americans. Regina King’s son, Ian Alexander Jr, and the former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst. Both were successful and influential people in their own right, yet they both died by suicide.
In the days that followed, we have learnt about their struggles with depression, and in Cheslie’s case, we learned that she had high functioning depression. She hid her illness from everyone, even her mother, with whom she was really close.
Mental Illness and Suicide
High functioning depression is defined as persistent depressive moods or symptoms that have persisted for more than two years in adults and at least one year in adolescents (Moch, 2011).
Not everyone who is depressed die by suicide; however, research has found that most people who have died by suicide have suffered from mental health disorders.
Additionally, the risk of suicide has been estimated to be between 5-8% for mental disorders, such as depression, alcoholism and schizophrenia (Bradvik, 2018).
Black Children’s Suicide
In the days that followed Cheslie’s suicide, many of her close friends and colleagues commented that her suicide was such a shock to them as there were no warning signs. They wondered how could they have missed the warning signs and what they could have done differently.
The recurring theme for many people who die by suicide is in the aftermath, those close to them had little or no idea how much they were suffering. Unfortunately, for many black children who have died by suicide, the story is the same.
Parents, teachers, siblings and friends often reported not knowing what the children were going through. The loved ones of these children struggled with missing the warning signs in the aftermath of their deaths.
According to the American Psychological Association, children’s suicide attempts increased 73% between 1991 and 2017.
There is an upward trend in black youth suicide. Data from the USA showed that between 2003-2017 there was an increase in the 15- to 17-year-old age groups with a 4.9% increase and among girls with a 6.6% increase (Sheftall et all, 2021).
Additionally, the rate of suicide among Black children in children aged 5-12 has doubled in the past 15 years. Meanwhile, data show that the suicide rate for Black children under 13 years old is twice as higher as the rate for white children.
In my native Jamaica, it is difficult to get official data on child suicide rates. However, between June 2020 and December 2021, I found seven reported cases of child suicide in the press, with all but one of the children being girls. The children were aged between 8 and 17 years old. Yet, this is still a taboo subject in our community.
COVID-19 and Black Children’s Mental Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has further compounded the issue for children as growing research has pointed to COVID’s negative impact on children’s mental health and emotions. So much so that the UN has sounded the alarm of an impending crisis.
The impact of COVID-19 on children’s mental health is particularly worrying for Black children as black communities were the hardest hit by the pandemic.
Research also shows that child mental health during the pandemic was more likely impacted by stressors within the family, such as parents losing their jobs and the death of a close family member.
Risks Factors for Child Suicide in Black Children
Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and trauma pose a significant risk for child suicide. These are already challenging issues for children, but Black children face additional challenges such as poverty, racism, toxic stress and punitive discipline at home that put them at a greater risk of suicide.
Let us also not forget that mental health disorders have an onset in adolescence, with 34% of people affected by the age of 14 and 48.4% before 18 years old.
So then, what are the warning signs that a child is planning or thinking of suicide?
What are the Suicide Warning Signs?
Knowing the warning signs of suicide is just of the strategies for suicide prevention. This list may not be exhaustive; however, below, you will find the common suicide warning signs:
- Talking about dying or not wanting to be here, including mentions of harming self.
- Change in personality that causes children to be withdrawn, sad, anxious, irritable and/or tired.
- Change in behaviour that includes difficulty concentrating and/or risky or reckless behaviour. Some children might even stop or lose interest in their routines.
- There is a change in sleep patterns that may include insomnia and nightmares.
- There is a change in eating patterns, such as overeating or not eating much.
- Loss of self-control, including harming self and others.
Some people believe that asking children if they are having suicidal thoughts will put ideas of suicide in their minds. This is not true. Taking that first step to having a conversation with a child who has suicidal thoughts or exhibiting suicidal behaviours might just be the thing that saves his/her life.
If you suspect that your child or a child who is close to you might be at risk of attempting suicide, you must not hesitate to act.
Equip yourself with the necessary information that you will need to support your child. This includes the numbers for suicide-prevention hotlines, and child and adolescent therapy and counsellors near you.
Bradvik, L. (2018). Suicide Risk and Mental Disorders. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Moch, S. (2011). Dysthymia: More than Minor Depression. South African Pharmaceutical, 38-43.
Sheftall, A. H., Vakil, F., Ruch, D. A., Boyd, R. C., Lindsey, M. A., & Bridge, J. A. (2021). Black Youth Suicide: Investigation of Current Trends and Precipitating Circumstances. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.