CLEVELAND — An alarming rise of suicide rates among young Black girls has emerged during the coronavirus pandemic, experts said during a mental health roundtable hosted by Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Illinois Rep. Lauren Underwood.
The virtual roundtable on Wednesday focused on rising suicide rates across the U.S., and how state and national lawmakers can help to address mental health issues among youth.
“We know this pandemic has been the great revealer. It’s laid bare the structural racism,” Brown said during a virtual roundtable Wednesday. “We have a responsibility to make sure that children and young adults know their full potential.”
In recent years there has been a massive increase in suicide rates among Black youth, and particularly young Black girls, according to a study published by Dr. Arielle Sheftall, one of the guest speakers. Shetfall is a principal investigator in the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at the Abigail Wexner Research Institute and a professor at the Ohio State University.
At least 1,800 Black children died by suicide in the U.S. between 2003 and 2017, according to the study. Nearly 40% of those deaths were girls who were 12 to 14 years old.
“I think it’s really important that we understand what the trends are and what the risk factors are that Black youth are experiencing, that may be different from what the majority are experiencing in order to actually help them where they are and not consider what we have been doing for a long time to be the answer,” Sheftall said.
There are multiple reasons suicide deaths have increased, but structural racism, stigma, discrimination, and limited access to mental health and suicide prevention services in Black communities play a major role.
“We have to peel back the layers,” she said.
Interventions more specific to Black youth could help break down barriers of trust, Sheftall said. She also said practitioners must engage with youth the proper way.
“If they are expressing these thoughts and behaviors in a different way, we’re not capturing those, and unfortunately we’re losing lives because of that,” she said.
Illinois Rep. Lauren Underwood said addressing the issue of suicide deaths among youth, and particularly Black youth is more critical than ever. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows suicide rates among young Americans increased more than 50% between 2003 and 2017. By 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Americans aged 18 to 24.
The disturbing trends are even more pronounced among Black young people, Underwood and Sheftall said.
In Ohio, Black teens attempt suicide far more often than white teens, according to a 2020 study complied by The Mental Health & Addiction Advocacy Coalition, the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health, the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, and Ohio University. At least 15.8% of Black teens said they attempted suicide at least once, compared to 4.1% of white teens.
Underwood said Black people have the largest annual increase in suicide rates among any demographic group.
“The statistics are heartbreaking, but they’re also a call to action,” she said.
Underwood has authored a Child Suicide Prevention and Lethal Means Safety Act, co-sponsored by Brown, to bring increased funding and attention to suicide prevention for children and young adults.
“For some Black girls in regions of our country, we have a gap and a lag on health care access in general,” Underwood said.
There is a stigma in healthcare, particularly with behavioral health, that Black people don’t seek treatment, said LaToya Logan, the executive director at Project LIFT. The Cleveland-based nonprofit works with at-risk teens.
“And I can tell you, that’s not true. Black people want treatment,” Logan said.
Like Sheftall, Logan noted a vast disparity in how youth, and particularly Black girls and boys. She says children can have trouble articulating what they’re going through, and how you engage with them matters.
“If we’re looking at someone and we’re policing their hairstyle, their tone of voice, their value, the way they walk, the way they’re dressing,” Logan said. “We’re focused on behavior expressions as opposed to what are the antecedents of that behavior.”
Despite the alarming trends among Black teens and girls, in particular, at least 80% of the suicide deaths are men. White men, in particular, have accounted for the vast majority of suicide deaths across the U.S. In 2017, nearly 70% of all suicide deaths in the U.S. were among white men, according to the 2020 study that focused on suicide deaths in Ohio.