The suicide rate among Black youths increased 144% from 2007 to 2020, with data showing that Black LGBTQ+ youth are particularly at risk, according to a new report from researchers at the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The report, “Still Ringing the Alarm: An Enduring Call to Action for Black Youth Suicide Prevention,” comes a year after the gun suicide rate among Black teens surpassed the rate among white teens for the first time in history. In fact, Black youth have the fastest-rising suicide rate compared to their peers of other races and ethnicities, the report stated.
Despite the alarming rise, the report says, “Black researchers and implementers face significant barriers to conduct research and develop and implement culturally specific, evidence-based interventions for Black youth suicide prevention.”
The findings go to the core of intersectionality — the overlapping of interconnected social groups such as race, gender and class — and speak to the nature of the political landscape, the report’s authors say. They also underline the divide in the ways suicide prevention and mental health are addressed.
“We do hypothesize that institutional racism likely had an effect, but we don’t know for sure. That is one of the contributing factors that was at play,” said Janel Cubbage, a strategic partnerships and equity program manager at the Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
The findings, which are based on myriad sources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to The Trevor Project, also underscore the inequities in the suicide prevention community.
For example, from 2019 to the present, the term suicide resulted in 4,517 mentions in medical publications. Of that total, 951 results were specific to youth suicide. Of that figure, 42 articles were about Black youth suicide.
“All of the research has been done from a Eurocentric view,” Cubbage said. “Resources are not being dedicated to this issue.”
And, although the majority of the research is focused on the effects of suicide in relation to gun violence, other forms of suicide are explored.
From 2001 to 2020, the most common method of suicide among Black youth from birth through age 19 was suffocation (47.1%), followed by firearms (40.9%). But for Black boys from birth through age 19, suicide by firearm was the most common method (47.7%), followed by suffocation (42.7%).
For suicide prevention advocates and community leaders, the latest findings are upsetting but not surprising.
Janiah Fields, a suicidology advocate, said she was disappointed by the findings.
“The numbers have increased for quite some time. But it’s not being prioritized,” Fields said. “This will continue to rise if we keep sweeping this under the rug and not putting this as a top agenda.”
Fields, a 19-year-old junior at McDaniel College, said she became interested in advocacy work because she saw a lack of mental health representation in the media. She was concerned that mental health — especially within the Black community — was stigmatized or ignored.
“There’s always work that needs to be done as Black people,” said Fields, who assisted with the recent report. “We need to open up the floor to the conversation that isn’t talked about. We’re just expected to be strong. It’s OK to feel all the feels. We can only make it accessible if we talk about it.”
Lee Blinder, founder and executive director of Trans Maryland, called the findings “heartbreaking.”
“There is nothing we want more than our young folks to have a better experience than we did,” Blinder said, adding that representation matters and that it is important for LGBTQIA youth to meet and see people who look like them.
According to the report, in 2019, the year for which the most recent data is available, 51% of Black LGB (lesbian, gay, and bisexual) youth reported feeling sad or hopeless during the previous year and 35.1% reported seriously considering attempting suicide.
“When we are looking at data, our young people are feeling empowered to share their truth. We are seeing overwhelmingly that our young folks are coming out in significant numbers. However, they are encountering a world that does not provide space that they need to thrive,” Blinder said. “They are a significant part of the population. We want to make sure that they can survive.”
Jada Carrington has dedicated her adult life to advocating for mental health awareness. For the past eight years, she has helped to facilitate workshops for youth based around mental health. She is also the former young adult representative for the Governor’s Commission on Suicide Prevention.
“It’s important to be a voice for the people who do not have one,” said Carrington, who has experienced depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. “I’m also standing up for myself as well.”
Carrington said that breaking the stigmatization of suicide and mental illness in the Black community remains paramount.
She also said Black LGBTQ youth face compounded pressures.
“People are still very much ashamed, and of course that creates so many mental health issues,” Carrington said. “You can’t even be yourself and live in your own identity. You may be shunned, rejected and possibly beaten or killed. That’s double the issue of not feeling safe at any time in your skin and who you are.”
Carrington is looking for “creative ways” to address mental health so that it doesn’t feel “so invasive.”
“It needs to be normalized,” she added. “We need to create more spaces where you feel safe talking about mental health.”
Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore City chapter of the NAACP, hasn’t read the study, but he said mental health in the Black community remains front of mind in discussions concerning Baltimore.
“I was just commenting earlier this week that there are a lack of therapists who have the social competence to address the needs of the Black community,” he said.
Little called the issue “striking” in Baltimore.
“We’re subjected to compound trauma,” he said. “It’s a triage situation. We have to stop the trauma, and we have to heal the trauma. We need to have people in place who are qualified and desirous to do that work.”
Among the report’s recommendations: that small, community-based organizations and Black researchers have clear access to suicide prevention research and funds; an increase in the amount and availability of funding for suicide prevention research and implementation; the creation of safe and supportive spaces for Black youth; evaluation of the 988 national suicide prevention lifeline to understand the impact among Black youth and other communities of color; that mental health services be more accessible; and the engagement of Black churches in suicide prevention initiatives.
The report’s authors also seek a better understanding of “the role financial concerns play after hospitalization and in accessing follow-up/transition care,” and they recommend reducing ”financial concerns about involuntary hospitalization.”
Cubbage, the Johns Hopkins program manager, wants the field to shift its focus.
“We focus so much on intervention. We do not focus on people who are already in crisis,” Cubbage said. “For Black youth, institutional racism is something we need to address to reduce the risk for Black youth so we can develop culturally responsive and appropriate interventions for Black youth.”
She also wants to “decenter” the Eurocentric views of suicide.
“I want to avoid the trap that we fall into by developing evidence that is normed on majority-white populations,” she said. “We need to challenge the status quo and create more equity within suicide prevention. We want to provide help so that Black youth feel that this world is worth staying in.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 to contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.