Zero Suicide: Suicide Prevention for Black Youth

Sherry Molock, associate professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at George Washington University, highlights the special suicide risk factors for youth of communities of color, and the need to use culturally salient approaches in suicide prevention, suicide risk assessment, and referral practices.

Suicide rates for Black children aged 5-12 are approximately double the rates for white children of similar ages, according to research data cited by Molock in her presentation, “Singing in a Strange Land: Suicide Prevention for Black Youth,” at the Suicide Prevention Center of New York’s “AIM for Zero: Suicide Care is Healthcare” symposium September 28-30.

She pointed to other research that indicated that suicide attempts are greater among LGBTQ college students of color. She said that suicide attempts rose by 73 percent between 1991-2017 for male and female Black adolescents, while injury by attempt rose by 122 percent for adolescent Black males during that time period.

Part 9 in a Series about the Zero Suicide Model for Healthcare

Another important finding, Molock said, comes from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the survey showed lower percentages of Black high school students compared to their peers reporting feeling sad or hopeless or considering suicide, the percentage of Black students who actually had made suicide attempts was significantly higher (11.8 percent) compared to their white (7.9 percent) and Hispanic (8.9 percent) peers. “That trend has been changing for about the last five years,” she said.

Molock called for more studies on youth of communities of color, better funding for Black researchers studying health disparities, and culturally competent providers for communities of color.

Molock cited lack of access to healthcare and economic instability as important risk factors for suicide among African Americans. She cited a Johns Hopkins University suicide study in Maryland that showed while suicide rates were cut in half for whites during the Covid-19 pandemic, they doubled for Black residents of the state.

“The negative impact of Covid is disproportionate in communities of color,” she explained. “The industries that were most heavily hit by the pandemic were the hospitality service communities, professions where Blacks and Latinos are more likely to work. The rates probably reduced for whites because they’re more likely to have a job that allows them to work from home, they have access to better healthcare, and more benefits for economic relief.”

Experiencing racial discrimination is among the particular factors placing African Americans at risk for suicide, Molock said. But she noted that nonetheless Black community norms don’t generally support seeking professional mental help treatment.

She explained that Black youth are more likely to discuss problems with family members or are discouraged from sharing information about mental health concerns with “outsiders.” She said that mental health help seeking may be more stigmatizing for Black adolescents, that their peers may not be supportive of seeking treatment, and that particularly Black males seek professional help as a last resort.

Structural barriers and social determinants of health hinder access to treatment, Molock said. She pointed to research that Blacks on average receive poorer quality of care than whites, and that Black youth are less likely to receive care for depressive symptoms and suicide attempts.

Rates of engagement in treatment and treatment completion are lower in Black adolescents compared to white peers, she said. Molock said that Black youth may be misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed because assessment tools are not designed to assess culture-specific expressions of depression.

“We have to ask ourselves,” she said, “are the traditional measures or questionnaires that we use to assess or even screen for depression a one-size-fits-all, or do we need to have more nuance in the way that we ask questions so that we can get at this phenomenon for Black youth?”

She said another key to suicide prevention in communities of color is increasing protective factors and decreasing risk factors.

“One of the most important ways that we can prevent suicide is to make sure that people have stable housing, they have food security, and stable employment,” she said. “If we can give people the basics of their necessities are fulfilled, then a lot of the stress and risk factors that are associated with suicide decrease significantly.

“Every child in the United States should have financial security. They should grow up in stable communities, have stable housing and have job training programs to increase financial stability. We should also strengthen access and delivery of suicide and mental health care.”

Molock called for peer programs that promote help-seeking behavior and services that partner with faith-based and other community organizations where people of color are more comfortable and trusting discussing personal problems.

READ MORE: The Zero Suicide Model in Tompkins County

If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.