As black teen suicide rises, more resources and awareness needed
By Sierra Lewter, Louis Steptoe, Rhea Warren, Davon Harris and Berri Wilmore
Artwork by Pooja Singh, UHMP graphics and social media coordinator
June 15, 2020
Aabrielle Spear’s first thoughts of suicide came shortly after getting bullied in kindergarten.
As a young girl she dealt with a lot of issues that can be overwhelming for a child. Her parents’ separation, overly strict teachers, and a mom that was often gone because of long work days.
It was all too much for Spear, whose suicidal thoughts grew stronger by the time she was in third grade.
“That was the earliest time I thought about suicide and hurting myself,” she said.
Now 14, Spear has struggled with her mental health for most of her life. She wrote an essay earlier this year that talked about her journey with her mental health. In the story, she shared the time her mother found her self-inflicted cuts and sent her to a medical facility for the first time.
“No, Mama! Please! I’m begging you! I’ll be fine, Mama!” I started to yell as she grabbed my arm and dragged me downstairs, she wrote. I fought with all I had inside me, but she kept pulling me as if I were a rag doll. “I’ll get better, I promise! Don’t take me!”
Spear is not alone in her struggle with mental illness and suicidal thoughts.
Maya, a black teenager in Washington, D.C., who did not want her name used due to the sensitive nature of her case, had suicidal thoughts of her own as a high school student.
“I will kill myself,” the girl recalls yelling at her father as she held a knife in her hand.
It was an incident involving sexting that nearly sent her over the edge.
When she pressed the blue send arrow on her iPhone, she didn’t fully realize what she had done. Much like other high school students, she had a lot on her plate with exams and other activities. She sent the images of herself to her boyfriend trusting him and believing he would delete them. She definitely never thought he would share them with others.
But that is what happened. Maya deleted photos of her boyfriend that he sent to her. The boyfriend, angry over a rumor that his girlfriend had been intimate with another boy, betrayed her trust and exposed and humiliated her.
He sent the very personal photos to a cousin and the images quickly made their way through the entire school. The spur of the moment decision led to four years of embarrassment and unease for the girl that never seemed to fully work itself out. She was bullied to the point that death seemed the only way out.
Without help, teenagers like Maya and Spear face potentially devastating consequences. Calling black youth suicide a “crisis,” the Congressional Black Caucus issued a report in December showing suicide attempts by black adolescents of both sexes rose 73 percent from 1991 to 2017. Injuries from attempted suicides increased 122 percent for black boys during the same period.
White youth still die by suicide at a higher rate, but the rate of black youth suicide is increasing faster than any other racial or ethnic group. Black youth under 13 were twice as likely to die by suicide than their white counterparts.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a pediatrician who was surgeon general under President Bill Clinton, suggests that the dramatic increase in the suicide rate of black teens has myriad causes, such as the stress caused by growing up around high levels of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence and imprisonment of family members. All of these life stressors can make it “amazing that they survive,” she said.
Thoughts of suicide can occur during periods of stress, depression, or anxiety, and these are mental health issues that often go unresolved in the Black community, said Washington, D.C. child psychiatrist and pediatrician Dr. Terry Jarrett. Although suicide itself is not a mental health disorder, mental health issues such as depression, bipolar disorder (manic depression), schizophrenia and substance use disorders, can lead teens to take their lives.
Many African Americans may be hesitant to get treatment or take prescriptions. Therefore, since many parents aren’t getting treatment for themselves, they are far less likely to do the same for their children. Teens may also not feel comfortable talking to their parents and choose instead to internalize their feelings.
Some African Americans also don’t fully trust doctors and the medical community and may be skeptical of some treatments, including medication to treat mental disorders.
There are legitimate historic reasons that African Americans feel this way, the most notable probably being the Tuskegee Experiment. The Tuskegee Experiment was a study set to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis. African-American men in the study were only told they were receiving free health care from the United States government and that the study would last six weeks. The men were never told that they would never be treated.
A six-week study lasted 40 years and fostered bitterness and mistrust from the African American community that still exists today.
Therapists say they often have to break down walls of mistrust when treating African American patients. Jarrett wants people to know that medication is not the only way for people to address mental health issues. There are other options. “It’s like having a hammer when you need a tool to build a house,” Jarrett said.
Bruce Purnell, a psychologist based in Washington, D.C. who runs several non-profit organizations that work with young people in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, also compares living in impoverished urban communities to being at war.
“Outside, it’s the same as being at war, you’re hearing gunshots and everything,” he said. “People are targets everyday. You have to be on guard every day. You have to be on point because anything could happen. The bullets could wind up getting you.”
"You're self medicating to the point where you're feeling like you can't self medicate anymore. So my new self medication is to not be here anymore," he said.
The counselors at Robert W. Coleman Elementary, a Baltimore public school, successfully tried other approaches to dealing with mental illness, including replacing detention with meditation.
In Baltimore, nearly a quarter of residents are living below the poverty line, according to US census data. High homicide rates also plague the city. A 2018 USA TODAY article discussed the city’s record high homicide rate, at the time making it deadlier than Detroit and Chicago. Living in these conditions can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms similar to that experienced by war veterans, many studies have shown.
What’s being done about it:
•Increasing awareness, resources. Actress Tareji P. Henson's Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation supports mental health among African Americans by partnering with schools in cities across the country. Henson says there's a misconception that leads people to act like they're stronger than they are, instead of talking about poor mental health honestly. Her foundation also offers scholarships for black students who want careers in the mental health field.
•Teaching mindfulness in schools. The counselors at Robert W. Coleman Elementary are working to counter this with their Mindful Moment Room, where students can collect their thoughts and calm down rather than get kicked out of school or face other punishment. They teach them to deal with their emotions in a healthy way so that they don’t one day become a suicide statistic.
The Holistic Life Foundation is a non-profit that is supporting the meditation room. Foundation co-founder Andres Gonzalez told CNN how many of these children are exposed to traumatic situations at a young age.
“I’ve had a kid come in and look at me straight in the face with no emotions and say, 'my grandfather got shot yesterday,’” he told CNN. "So you can imagine what these kids have to face."
•Community groups. Purnell teaches young people to see the positive parts of life and believes that by helping students to feel good about themselves and their futures it “builds a resilience and a transformation that can be a filter against all of their problems.”
“Those who are contemplating suicide or feel that it would be better if they were not here, feel and see no hope,” he said.
For Myrna Spear, the change in her daughter Aabrielle is remarkable - and should offer hope to all.
After two rounds of in- and out-patient treatment through the Loma Linda Hospital behavioral health programs, Spear has been relying upon virtual therapy and Prozac.
After initially dreading the start of high school last fall, Spear has hit her stride. She is on the honor roll, has consistent friend groups, was in the black student union and played junior varsity basketball but lost her track season to coronavirus.
“There is really good communication between she and I now; we talk very openly,” Spear’s mother said. “She’s really upbeat and happy. She actually often helps her friends cope with stressful situations based on the strategies she has learned.”
By instilling hope, Purnell believes that all other steps towards improvement are within reach. Jarrett describes it as “urban war” and is part what is leading to the high suicide rates.
Jarrett said she will ask: “Is there hope for you to switch it around? Is there a chance for you to create a scenario where you break the cycle and for you and your future generations don't have this as a cultural norm?”
She and Purnell believe there is.
A version of this story appeared in USA Today.
Mental Health: Effects on Today's Teens
Video by Kamyla Bullock (Howard High School in Maryland) & Samara Winston (Bard High School Early College)