Suicide rates among young black children in the U.S. have risen dramatically over the past two decades, while rates among young white children fell over the same time period, according to a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Historically, suicide rates in the U.S. have been lower for blacks than whites across all age groups. But in a startling reversal, black children are now more than three times as likely as white children to commit suicide — a finding that was so surprising that the researchers waited for an additional year of data to confirm it.
“I was shocked, I’ll be honest with you,” lead author Dr. Jeffrey Bridge, an epidemiologist at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, told The New York Times. “I looked at it and I thought, ‘Did we do the analysis correctly?’ I thought we had made a mistake.”
The study, based on nationwide data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that the overall suicide rate for school-aged children remained steady at about 1 per million from 1993 to 2012. However, while the suicide rate among white children dropped from 1.14 to 0.77 per 1 million, the rate among black children nearly doubled over that same time period, climbing from 1.36 to 2.54 per 1 million.
The findings raise important questions “about what factors might influence increasing suicide rates among young black children,” the study says. Although the researchers can’t make any definitive conclusions about the causes of the uptick, experts say social changes are likely a driving force.
“What it means to grow up young and black has changed,” Washington University Professor Dr. Sean Joe told The New York Times. “Something happened that put Black [youth] at risk.”
Indeed, as the study notes, black children in the U.S. experience disproportionate exposure to poverty, racism, violence, traumatic stress and aggressive school discipline, as well as other “toxic stressors.” These experiences take a toll on the psyche of black youth, preventing them from establishing the sense of safety and stability that is so critical for healthy psychological development.
Furthermore, people of color face unique challenges when it comes to mental health care, as described by Dr. Damon Tweedy, a psychiatrist at Duke University Medical Center, in a recent New York Times article:
Black people have often fared poorly in their interactions with the mental health care system. For example, they are nearly half as likely as whites to receive treatment for diagnosed mental health disorders of comparable severity. When black patients do receive treatment, it is far more likely to occur in an emergency room or psychiatric hospital than it is for whites, and less likely to be in the calmer office-based setting, where longer-term treatment can take place.
While reducing these disparities in mental health care is critical, ultimately, reversing the tragic rise of suicide among black youth will depend on addressing the very factors that make black children question the value of their lives in the first place. Racism, wealth inequality, unemployment, and unjust punishment are everyday realities for far too many black youth; when combined with a lack of expressed appreciation for black lives, these entrenched inequities all too often give way to hopelessness and despair.
As the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement continues to call attention to the broken social institutions that maintain this level of inequity, we must also remember the many broken spirits left in their wake.