The Truth About Black Teen Suicide
My teacher responded to a poem a student had written about his suicide attempt. The room fell silent. Everyone else in the room was Black but her. "I mean, I didn't think they had serious problems," she added.
Sitting there in the classroom, I thought that had to be the most ignorant comment I had ever heard in my life. Now that slavery was abolished, the Civil Rights movement over and some African-Americans upwardly mobile, everything was alright? Blacks did not have any more problems? Wrong!
I found my teacher's statement absolutely offensive. But later, realized I had never thought about suicide among African-American teenagers either. Even though I had considered suicide myself, I didn't think that other Black kids did.
I Thought Suicide Was a White Thing
Like my teacher, I guess I thought suicide was more of a problem with White teens. Teen suicides talked about in the media were always White. If Blacks of any age were committing suicide, I had never heard about it in the news or on TV. Suicide never came up in a conversation with my friends, and my parents never talked about it.
My teacher's ignorance as well as my own led me to do further research on Blacks and suicide. I now know suicide is a real problem in the Black community and that I'm not the only Black teen who has ever thought about it.
My teacher and I weren't totally wrong to see suicide as a problem for White teens more than for Black teens. Until recently, White teens committed suicide at a much higher rate than Black teens, according to reports. But over the last 20 years, the rate of Black teen suicide has increased dramatically.
Paying More Attention to Suicide in the Black Teen Community
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1980, the suicide rate for Whites aged 10-19 was 157% greater than that of Blacks. However, by 1995 there was only a 42% difference. Although Whites are still more likely to commit suicide than blacks, the suicide rate for all African-Americans doubled between 1980 and 1996.
These statistics startled me. I wondered why there was such a dramatic increase in Black suicides. Dr. Juliet Glinski, of the Montefiore Medical Center, suggests that medical officials may be identifying suicide as a cause of death more frequently because education about suicide is more a part of their training than it used to be.
"Is there an increase among Black teenagers or in fact are we paying more attention to the problem?" said Alan Ross, executive director of the Samaritans of New York, a suicide prevention organization. "When you pay more attention to a problem, you become more aware of the number of people suffering from it," he says.
Possible Causes of the Increased Rate of Black Teen Suicide
Black Teens Get Depressed, Too
It's also possible that there are simply more Black teens committing suicide than in the past. But what could be making more Black people end their lives? For some, the same reasons as White people, such as depression, social isolation and hopelessness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most common reasons given for attempted suicides by teen suicide survivors were a conflict with a boyfriend or girlfriend, an argument with parents and school problems. And gay teens of all backgrounds have a much higher rate of suicide because they often feel conflicted about or ashamed of their sexuality.
"Certainly the warning signs of suicide and the risk factors that touch all teenagers would be there for Black teenagers," said Ross.
When it comes to the motivations to commit suicide, Ross said, "there is no difference between us." Just like White teens, Black teens have had exposure to conflicts and sexual identity issues.
Depression and Isolation a Cause of Black Teen Suicide
Is there anything that might account for the dramatic increase in suicides among African-Americans? Donna H. Barnes, one of the founders of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide, notes that depression, which often goes undiagnosed, is on the increase among African-Americans.
This might be because, says Barnes, "Blacks are being taken away from the traditional Black community and moving into White communities. Blacks feel isolated."
Barnes mentions that since the Civil Rights movement produced advances in law and equality, there are more opportunities available to Blacks than there used to be. Because of this, though, when they fail they may begin to blame themselves instead of the system. This can lead to depression and suicide.
Possible Causes of the Increased Rate of Black Teen Suicide
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Poverty and Low Self-Esteem
Poor African-Americans can also be affected by hopelessness and social isolation. Some community leaders have pointed to a lack of decent jobs and positive role models for young Black men in poor communities. They note that poverty and low self-esteem, together with easy access to drugs and guns, can lead to suicide as well.
Kenya Napper Bello, a counselor in Atlanta, told The Washington Post that the young Black men she counsels said they feel isolated from social institutions-such as family, church and school-that could help them.
Guys with Guns Die Most
Males do have a higher rate of suicide than females. Among people of all backgrounds, four males kill themselves for every female who kills herself. Of the 2,103 Blacks of all ages who committed suicide in 1997, Black males accounted for 1,764 of the completed suicides while only 339 were Black females. But more females, of all backgrounds, try to kill themselves; there are three female suicide attempts for every male attempt.
Males are more likely to actually kill themselves because they have greater access to firearms. Gun-related suicides accounted for 72% of suicides among Black males in 1997.
Because women and girls tend to use less effective ways to commit suicide such as slitting wrists and consuming pills, they are more likely to be found alive and taken to the hospital for treatment.
He Didn't Look Like the Suicide Type
I had thought about suicide before. I realized that the day my teacher made her ignorant comment. The student who had read his poem to the class (I'll call him Jai) did not look like the type that would want to end his life. He was popular and attractive. Out of all people, he would not have been the person I expected to weave this tale of horror.
Why did he want to die? "I wasn't happy with myself," he said. He survived his suicide attempt, though, and was sent to a mental institution for teenagers. The institution was crowded, depressing and suffocating.
"It was filled with hopelessness and despair," said Jai. The institution was filled with Black teenagers like himself, which surprised him.
I Didn't Feel Alone
After Jai read his poem, other students in the room also admitted to at least thinking about suicide. Suddenly, I didn't feel alone. We discussed why we had thought about suicide. Family problems and pressures from school were the most common reasons.
After our discussion, an eerie silence passed through the entire room, then we changed the subject. We never talked about it again. It was an eye opener for me. I did not know how widespread the problem was until that day.
"Everyone feels suicidal at one point in their life," said Ross. "We have to be responsive and supportive, not accusatory but understanding, and not blame the people for having a hard time. The more accepting we are, the more we help people before they feel more suicidal."
The National Hopeline Network 1-800-SUICIDE provides access to trained telephone counselors, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Or for a crisis center in your area, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
© 2002 by Youth Communication
Last Updated: 10 July 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD