Tell Me I Matter
It is time to raise our collective voices because Black youth are dying by suicide at alarming rates. From 1991 to 2017 there has been a 73% increase in Black children and adolescents attempting to die by suicide, with suicide being the second leading cause of death among Black youth. Tragically, Black adolescents are the least likely out of all racial or ethnic groups to receive appropriate mental health care. Considering that Black youth are so stigmatized and face additional risk factors, it is gravely wrong that they do not have access to the same mental health care that others do. Engagement interventions that reduce the stigma around Black youth seeking mental health care are needed.
Stigmatizing mental health treatment increases Black adolescents’ chances of dying by suicide by delaying treatment. Stigmatizing systemic factors include misunderstanding how trauma, anxiety, and depression may show up differently for Black youth than it does for their white peers. Black youth may be diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder and thought of as aggressive when, really, they are depressed.
Professors, Drs. Hays and Erford also stated that assessment tools that are used “may lack nuance in cultural-specific expressions of depressive symptoms” and misdiagnosis of Black children too often place them in the school to prison pipeline. Additionally, misdiagnosing Black youth perpetuates stigmas about them.
Black Youth Mental Health Stigma
The stigmatization of Black youth ends up silencing them and they are often penalized for their mental health care needs, which of course exacerbates the very issues that led to these mental health crises in the first place, creating a vicious cycle. There is healing in talking about our mental health, and we need to teach kids they are valuable, and it is okay to ask for help.
Sadly, many factors contribute to Black adolescents attempting to die by suicide. Psychologist and Professor, Dr. David Rivera stated it has been shown that racial groups “that are stigmatized carry a disproportionate burden of negative physical health outcomes.”
Dr. Joshua Gordon, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health stated that besides mental health stigmas, Black youth face an exorbitant amount of risk factors such as “higher rates of unemployment and financial and food insecurity, disparities in other aspects of health, and limited access to care.” Exposure to trauma, racial discrimination, and more punitive responses for Black youth (e.g. juvenile detention) vs. mental health services for white youth, are also risk factors. The way mental health is viewed in communities can end up bolstering systemic factors that contribute to the mental health crisis.
Black youth must feel that they matter to us. Stigma and racial discrimination contribute to internalized negative beliefs. In a study looking at the mental health stigma among people of color, they showed the importance of “addressing the impact of racial discrimination” and “anti-stigma interventions that do not consider the impact of the contextual stressor of discrimination among people of color may be less effective.” Black youth must be encouraged to share their feelings. When speaking to a Black adolescent on a crisis line I work for, one caller heartbreakingly remarked…
So, what anti-stigma strategies and mental health literacy initiatives can we can use to reduce the suicide rates of Black youth?
- Educational workshops or trainings on suicide prevention/awareness that are targeted towards Black youth and their caregivers is an urgent need in communities.
- Asking young people directly what their needs are can help them develop a sense of agency.
- Discovering what aspects of Black cultural experiences contribute to risk and protective factors is necessary, because we can all invest time in to reinforcing protective factors. Protective factors include- coping and problem-solving skills, self-love, adequate mental health care, and connection.
- Teaching young people that success equates to more than their achievements is foundational. Black youth must recognize the importance of joy, rest, and pleasure.
- Student-led clubs such as Bring Change to Mind is an affordable option that schools could model after-school clubs after.
- Increasing cultural awareness in mental health spaces and using a collectivist approach instead of an individualistic approach may be helpful.
- Parents, teachers, health workers, community members, and policymakers need to put effort into addressing social stigmas and health inequalities in the Black community.
It is a myth that if we speak to children about suicide, it will increase their chances of attempting to die by suicide. As a community, let’s normalize speaking to our youth about mental health and acknowledge how stigma and discrimination contribute to poor mental health outcomes. Black adolescents are dying by suicide at alarming rates is a public health crisis. It is time we show Black youth that they matter.