Suicide Attempts Rise Among Black Teens, But Researcher Says Data On Solutions Is Missing

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The rate of black teens making suicide attempts has risen 73% since 1991, according to the study, as the rates for other groups fell or followed no discernible pattern. (Michael Mathes/AFP/Getty Images)
The rate of black teens making suicide attempts has risen 73% since 1991, according to the study, as the rates for other groups fell or followed no discernible pattern. (Michael Mathes/AFP/Getty Images)

Suicide attempts among black children and teenagers have increased by 73% since 1991, according to data published in the Journal of Pediatrics this month.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teenagers in the U.S., but over the period studied, suicide attempts decreased among teens in every ethnic group except for African Americans. Self-reported suicide attempts among white teenagers fell by 7.5% between 1991 and 2017, the study found.

The data is based on the responses of 200,000 American high school students in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

“This group always reported much higher rates of suicide attempts than any other group except for Native American Alaskan Indians since 1991,” says Sean Joe, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the study’s authors. “So now we're seeing a stronger, significant increase not only for males but also for black females.”

The rise in suicide attempts among black adolescents is marked by higher levels of hopelessness, increased stigma around mental health issues and lack of access to mental health care, Joe says.

“There is potentially more increased trauma in this population that's not dealt with [and a] greater level of hopelessness ... for this population that we have never seen before,” he says. “So these are things we must really take a look at.”

Black teen girls often have stronger social networks to connect with than black boys, he adds. The increase in self-reported suicide attempts among black teen girls could suggest they’ve lost those support systems, Joe says.

“For instance, our black young girls [are] less likely now to be engaged in the black church when before they really were avid churchgoers and participation in organized religious activities,” he says. “The other thing we have to look at is whether or not there's increasing in any notions of bullying among young black girls.”

Michael A. Lindsey, Ph.D., lead researcher on the study and executive director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University, told CBS News that social media can also negatively impact girls more than boys.

"Research shows that girls exhibit more interpersonal stress from social media usage and cyberbullying," Lindsey says.

When people are suffering from a mental health issue, there are usually warning signs to look out for, Joe says. Kids will stop engaging in activities they usually enjoy, isolate themselves and maybe exhibit disordered eating. Joe says it’s also important to listen closely to their words.

“They start making statements akin to 'I don't feel like I want to be here. It might be too much for me to be here. I might be a burden to you,' ” he says. “We want to listen to these sort of statements very carefully and realize that our young people are trying to signal that they are not okay.”

When kids under 12 years old try to commit suicide, the most common method is asphyxiation, Joe says. Older than 12, they usually try to use a firearm.

“We have to ask, 'How are these young black males having access to these firearms that results in death when they have a very impulsive, suicidal thought or are experiencing a suicidal crisis?' ” Joe says. “In states where you have more restrictive access to firearms with greater provisions to understand people's mental health, understand their risk to themselves and others, in those states, you see a 20% to 33% difference in the rates of suicide than in states where you do not.”

The challenge for researchers, Joe says, is that there have not been any significant studies of the impact of cognitive behavioral therapy or other mental health measures on black populations.

“We are at a loss to say what really works, but at best, we know that it's important to screen for suicidal behavior. We know it's important to try to engage our black children in mental health services,” he says.

“But do we have definitive evidence? We do not,” Joe says. “And again, I've been doing this for well over 15 years, and we have not seen significant investments in any study that really focus on these populations, despite the rise over time in suicide among this group.”

Even though there’s a lack of research, Joe says he’s hopeful that there are opportunities to step in and give teens hope, so they don’t try to commit suicide.

“We know that for those who we do get help — or even talk therapy in combination with pharmaceutical treatment — we know that life does get better,” he says. “And these suicidal moments usually last about 10 minutes, so there's opportunities for us to intervene. We do think you can make a difference.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on October 23, 2019.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.


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Samantha Raphelson Associate Producer, Here & Now
Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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