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Suicide within African-American community a pressing issue


Not something to sweep under the rug

By Jade Miller | OW Contributing writer

While this time of year tends to bring awareness to the forefront around addressing the factors that impact mental wellness, suicidality in the Black community must be addressed. As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, we must take a critical look at ways to decrease the rates of suicide, and that begins with addressing the stigma and bringing this issue to light.

An analysis published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) based on new research on suicide rates reported that the suicide rate among Black individuals increased by about 19% between 2018 and 2021. According to the CDC, suicide was the third leading cause of death for Black youth (ages 15 to 24) in 2020.

Black mental health is complex. When we think about the mental and emotional health of Black people and other populations of color, we are not merely observing a diagnosis characterized by various symptoms and behaviors. Instead, we must consider the context of many factors, including generational and historical trauma, barriers to accessing resources, stigma, and ongoing systemic oppression. Any combination of these factors can lead to feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and depression - some of the many antecedents of suicide.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducted a National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2020 and found that the percentage of Black adults who received mental health services in the past year was only 37.1% compared to 51.8% of White adults. The same survey also found that Black adults who received prescription medications for mental health services were only 27.5% compared to 44.5% of White adults.

How do we reconcile addressing the increase in suicide within the Black community with the ongoing distrust of the mental health system to address the needs of Black individuals adequately?

Unfortunately, telling someone to contact a crisis line is not sufficient. As reported by Rob Wipond in an article on Mad in America, within the first year of the 988 launch, there has been a significant increase in police interventions leading to involuntary psychiatric detention.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is the new name for what was previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The purpose of the rebrand was to make mental health-related crisis support more accessible by creating a three-digit number akin to 911 for those experiencing a mental health emergency. Given the frequency of police brutality and the disproportionate representation of people of color within the criminal justice system, there is very rational fear and hesitance to reach out for support when a Black person is experiencing a crisis.

While reaching out for support is essential, it is not always enough. When someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, the individual has to feel safe reaching out and trust that the resources they turn to have the capacity to support their needs in a way that does more to help than to harm.

With the complex factors that play into the mental health of Black people, the response must be equally, if not more, complex. There is a need for more multi-disciplinary collaboration and more research, prevention, and open discussion to address the stigma and various other barriers to the Black community accessing culturally-appropriate services.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), some of the warning signs of suicide include behavioral changes such as an increase in risky behaviors (driving recklessly, using alcohol or drugs), changes in sleep or appetite, withdrawing from friends and family, giving away valuable items, or talking about wanting to die or expressing hopelessness, guilt, or feelings of shame.

Suicide is not a bad word. Contrary to popular belief, asking directly about suicide will not plant the thought in someone’s mind or push them to act. Research has shown that asking if someone is thinking about suicide has the opposite impact because it offers space for the individual to feel safe opening up.

One of the first steps to addressing suicide is to eradicate the stigma around mental health and start the conversation. The safer individuals feel to open up about their feelings, the less isolated they feel. Healing comes from community, and we each have a role to play in fostering a community that is accepting and unafraid to sit with “hard” feelings.

If you notice someone in your life is struggling emotionally or showing warning signs of suicide, start by expressing your concern and reminding them that you care about them. If you want to ask about suicide, do not shy away from using plain language. Try asking, “Are you thinking about suicide?” or “Have you been thinking about suicide?” If they are, try not to panic. Ask if they have a plan or intend to act on those thoughts.

People often experience suicidal ideation (thoughts about suicide) without any plan or intent. Usually, when someone is experiencing ideation, just having a safe space to open up can make a significant difference. If someone has a plan or expresses intent, you must ensure you have resources to connect them to the support they need.

While more research and policy development is necessary to address this issue, we can rest assured that we each have a unique role in preventing suicide within our community. As we have these conversations, we contribute to a community and society in which vulnerability is encouraged, and the internal struggles we may face are no longer being swept under the rug.

Jade Miller is an Associate Clinical Social Worker living in Los Angeles She is a specialist in crisis intervention and currently works as a mental health clinician for a local county-contracted agency providing outpatient mental health services to adults with severe mental illness.