Childhood is meant to be a time in our lives when we are free of worry and get to focus on exploring our imaginations and learning the ropes of society.
As a community, we tend to see children as being exceptionally resilient. But when it comes to emotionally disruptive influences, like being pushed around on the playground or being harassed not just at school but online 24/7, not every child can bounce back so easily.
Gabriel Taye was one of those children who could not recover emotionally after repetitive bullying.
After school one day, he went into his bedroom and hung himself with a necktie. His tragic and untimely death came just a few days after being bullied in a school bathroom so badly he was left unconscious at the hands of another student.
Gabriel’s death is part of an alarming rise in childhood suicide among Black children. Not only has suicide increased within the Black community for the first time in our history, but it’s specifically impacted Black children between the ages of 5-12, especially Black boys.
I spoke with Dr. Byron Young, MD, a child psychiatrist and emotional wellness program consultant who uses hip-hop to teach kids about mental wellness through his project Doing It Well. He shared his thoughts on the phenomenon of young children taking their own lives.
“Suicide kills more people than murder does,” Dr. Young said, paraphrasing current suicide statistics, “Suicide really takes a lot of people’s lives, yet the focus on suicide in terms of prevention and conversation are pretty minimal. So that’s a big problem in itself.”
Historically, the Black community has never had a high rate of suicide. Despite our troubled and turbulent history in the US, we have generally held the lowest incidence of suicide among all races.
“Being an African-American person is a social identity that comes with a lot of difficulty. There's oppression, the bias of blackness, the history and how it led to poverty,” says Dr. Young, “So we’re a group of people who have had lot of oppression and yet still, suicide was not common among us for a very long time.”
Dr. Young attributes our cultural resilience to the strong bonds most of us share with extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who remain connected and close.
A 2013 study that examined extended family found the Black community has more “fictive kin” networks than white people.
These are the “cousins” who aren't’ really cousins, but come to all the family events or the “auntie” that’s really your mother’s best friend, but is a constant at every graduation or major life event.
However, things are starting to change for us.
Now, with the rise of our dependence on the internet, our communities tend to be formed online. And more than half of two-parent families are also households in which both parents work.
Currently, Black children represent the highest percentage of children being raised in single-parent households (65% compared to 25% of white children). So more kids are getting themselves home after school and occupying their time without parental guidance.
“We’re a bit more secular than we use to be as a community,” Dr. Young explains, “So now, because of technology, [they] get all kinds of extra influences and the protective factors that [they] would have maybe gotten from Grandma aren’t present as much.”
As oppression, racism and stereotypes continue to weigh down on this new generation, the same as it has for previous generations, it is also coupled with a diminished extended family structure and an increased opportunity to ruminate over self-harm.
Suicide is also being normalized through the support of online communities that provide affirmation instead of discouragement or mental health resources.
Twenty years ago, kids would be hard pressed to find anyone in their community who would encourage them to commit suicide. But now, suicide support can be easily accessed with a few Google searches.
Dr. Young describes why this is a dangerous combination, “I think technology, while it has given us some beautiful things, it makes us connected not only to the good but also to our bad. Kids have more exposure to the idea that suicide is a viable option and also there are websites that teach kids how to do it.”
What is accessible to kids now goes far beyond encouragement. A child who may have just learned how to tie his own shoes can now also find instructions on how to tie a noose.
The concept of virtual influence to the point of physical harm is being examined for the first time in our history, and the potential impact is beyond scary, especially for anyone raising young kids.
Our community, it’s resilience and the survival of our family structure has always seemed to rest heavily upon outside influences, political climates, social constructs and racial oppression. So this recent increase in Black child suicide represents a new evil.
Dr. Young believes the answer is in conversation, comunning and rebuilding those networks that were previously formed organically, by necessity.
The focus of mental health should also be of higher concern in general. National anti-gang and anti-drug campaigns were a regular part of school growing up in the '90s. Where is the same energy for mental wellness and anti-isolation?
“We need to add an element of emotional health and emotional wellness as well as mental health literacy as part of the very fabric of our education,” says Dr. Young, “Emotional health is far more of an issue than drugs. We need to teach kids to talk about these things and how to support each other. If we can make that ubiquitous, then our kids won’t have to go hide in the dark.”