Why is suicide increasing in Black children?

By Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, Talkspace Therapist

In July 2015, published research by JAMA Pediatrics showed that the suicide rate among elementary school children (under 12 years of age) had stabilized over two decades. What they were surprised to find was that Black children were at an increased incidence of suicide whereas their White counterparts demonstrated a significant decrease in suicide incidence. While White children’s rates of suicide has stabilized, those of Black children had increased.

What’s happening to our young Black children?

This research does not indicate specific reasons for the uptrend in suicide among Black youth, but it is cause for concern. With the current political climate as it is, Black children are witnessing high profile deaths of Black people and other people of color in the mainstream news media. These incidents have sparked a lot of national conversation about policing issues and media representation of victims. As a result, the emotional health of Black Americans continues to suffer.

Most parents of Black children have “the talk” about what it means to be a young Black person in the United States. This often includes what racism is and some ways of how to deal and cope with its impact. It goes without saying that these discussions, while absolutely necessary, continue to create an underserved burden on our young people and their mental health.

The impact of racism, income inequality and different access to resources may all be factors in the mental health of young Black children. Parents, caregivers and school teachers should pause to assess their methods of accessing and exploring the emotional health of the children around them, especially considering these startling trends.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has published some of its findings in youth suicide in a presentation titled, “Suicidal Behavior in Children and Adolescents.” In this presentation Dr. Kaslow identifies some warning signs that children may be in trouble:

Warning signs

  • A distinct change in personality (increased sadness, being withdrawn or apathetic)
  • A change in sleep patterns including things like nightmares, oversleeping or insomnia
  • Thoughts and talking about death and/or dying
  • Eating habits change
  • A change in behavior (experiencing outbursts, acting erratically, etc.)

Parents and caregivers should make a concerted effort to take note of any of these changes and consult with a mental health professional for support. Talking to children in a “calm, non-accusatory” manner is paramount, according to Dr. Kaslow. Creating a family culture of open and non-judgmental sharing can help children open up about their thoughts and feelings.

While these tips are effective for parents of all children, parents of Black children may make special note to consider the impact of emerging racial identity and cultural differences among their child’s classmates and how that may be impacting the child. It may also behoove parents of Black children to talk about their own feelings of racism and discrimination to model healthy coping and problem solving strategies.

How to Help

If you notice a child in your life is dealing with thoughts of suicide or is demonstrating worrisome changes in behavior and mood, your best recourse is to seek consultation with a licensed mental health provider who specializes in treating children or families. This person’s expertise will help you sort out potential solutions to help keep your child safe.

If your child is in immediate need of help, calling 911 will be the safest best. No suicide threat, whether verbal or behavioral, should be ignored or taken as only “acting out.” It is an indicator of a serious problem.

Starting a conversation with your child about their emotions and daily experiences can do a lot of good in preventing mental health crises. Conversations are your most powerful tool in helping change this trend of increasing suicide among young, Black children.