Amid troubling research about the rising numbers of Black youth suicides, lawmakers and experts came together on Capitol Hill to discuss the problem and chart solutions.
On Tuesday, April 30, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) launched a new emergency task force that will focus on the growing problem of Black youth suicide, and what many professionals say is a lack of mental health care and resources.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics published a 2018 study which found that for the first time, the rate of suicides for Black children between ages 5 and 12 has now exceeded that of white children. More than a third of elementary school-aged suicides involved Black children, the report showed.
Moreover, the American Psychological Association says that suicide risk has increased overall for Black children under age 13, and Black boys are at even greater risk due to such factors as racism, depression, exposure to violence and more.
“Our children are facing trauma, they are struggling with racial stigmas, they are bullied for sexual orientation and gender identity and more, and these challenges are crushing them,” said Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), chair of the CBC Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health.
Fellow members of Congress on the task force are: Reps. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Alma Adams (D-NC), John Lewis (D-GA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Danny Davis (D-IL), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Jahana Hayes (D-CT), and Frederica Wilson (D-FL).
“We can no longer stand aside and watch as the youth in our community continue to struggle with depression, traumatic stress or anxiety,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The CBC-led task force will be both urgent and mission-driven, raising awareness and proposing concrete congressional policies to improve access to mental health care for Black youth and bring down rising suicide rates.
In a packed hearing room, lawmakers listened and asked questions of a five-member panel of African-American medical professionals and advocates. Each spoke passionately, saying it is critical that America and Black communities address the social and economic factors that have led to this crisis.
“For African-American youth—and youth of marginalized groups—very little research exists to support best practices and even less exists to form an evidence base for the treatment of mental illness,” said Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, CEO of The AAKOMA Project and Center.
“African-American youth are more likely to face adverse social determinants of health and mental health,” said Dr. William B. Lawson, MD, PhD, the medical director of Urgent Care Clinic in Washington, D.C. “Lack of awareness by the public has meant that African-American youth are much more likely to be criminalized than treated, leading to the cycle of in and out of prison.”
"All of the data tells us that hate crimes are on the rise and that bullying is rampant in our schools,” said David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. “Too often we push past these statistics and ignore the stories of the children behind them.”
He lamented the recent deaths by suicide of Nigel Shelby, 15, who was reportedly bullied at school for being gay, McKenzie Adams, 9, who was reportedly subjected to racists taunts, as well as other youth around the country. “Black children deserve to grow up too, all of them."
Several of the experts told BET the internet and social media may be factors in what Dr. Breland-Noble termed “contagion”—with children mimicking behavior with deadly consequences.
Sherry Davis-Molock, PhD, urged Congress to help educate parents, schools, churches and communities nationwide about the warning signs associated with suicide.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), risk factors include isolation, feelings of hopelessness, depression and mental disorders, illness or loss, alcohol/substance abuse, and family history of suicide.
The task force will seek to identify causes and solutions and will empower a working group of academic and practicing experts led by Michael A. Lindsey, PhD, MSW, MPH, the executive director at the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University.
Dr. Lindsey, a child and adolescent mental health services researcher, said the "troubling trends" regarding the rising rates of suicide attempts among Black youth signal an urgent need for attention to the mental health needs of the Black community. "We join the task force members in sounding the alarm and calling for more funding, training and staffing for mental health services in schools and other places where young people can access them."
The goal is to develop and produce a report from the task force by the end of 2019.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK.