Suicide attempts among Black teenagers in America have risen significantly over the past three decades, according to a new study that found no such spike among white, Asian, Latino or “other” racial and ethnic groups.
The findings, published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday, used self-reported data from high schoolers collected by the Centers for Disease Control between 1991 and 2017. And the researchers behind the study believe it shines a much-needed light on under-studied differences in suicidal attempts and ideation (basically, thoughts) among American teens based on race and ethnicity.
“It’s important to look at trends in suicide behavior expression, because it gives us a sense of whether there are particular risk groups — and then how we can begin to think about the needs of those different groups,” said lead author Michael A. Lindsey, executive director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at the NYU Silver School of Social Work.
HuffPost Parents chatted with Lindsey about his new research, and about what concerned parents need to know.
First and foremost, what are the main findings here that you think people really need to know about?
We looked at four “indices” of suicidal behavior: ideation, plans, attempts and injury by attempt. And attempts is where there is real cause for concern. We found that every racial and ethnic group had a decrease in attempts over that span of time, except for one group, and that was Black adolescents. Over that span of time, their attempts have gone up — both males and females. And injury by attempt has gone down for other groups, but has gone up by Black adolescent males. That means the method of attempt that led to serious harm was potentially lethal.
How can it be that suicidal ideation was down in your study, but actual attempts by Black teenagers increased? Can you explain that a bit?
When you have ideation and plans going down, but attempts increasing, that suggests there may be some impulsivity to it for Black kids. Like, they’re going straight to attempts.
“We need to do a better job of understanding the signs of suicidality. What does it look like in black teens?”
But it could also mean that for Black teens, we need to do a better job of understanding the signs of suicidality. What does it look like in Black teens?
I think the importance of this study is that it is calling out, in a very demonstrative way, that the way Black kids express their suicidal symptoms may be different. And we need to understand how and why.
I think the big question for so many readers and parents will obviously be what is behind this increase in Black teens. Obviously, that’s a bigger question than you can answer in one study, but what are some of the theories?
I think factors such as racism, higher rates of poverty and higher rates of adverse childhood events could be at play. But it has also been well-documented that Black youth have less access to mental health treatment. That could have to do, in part, with not wanting to be seen as weak. Stigma is definitely at play. There’s also mistrust of treatment providers, and Black youth might prefer to address their emotional and psychological pain within their families or their peer group.
We also know that there need to be more mental health counselors in schools. Oftentimes, we find in Black and brown communities (particularly low-income or low-resource) that schools have to share a clinician, or that clinician may only be available one day a week.
You’ve been doing this research for a while. Are we at least getting better at paying attention to some of these differences and issues?
I think there’s a lack of awareness, to be quite frank.
A lot of what you’re talking about requires big, systemwide change. That can leave parents feeling helpless. What can they do?
Well first, we need to raise greater awareness of the signs of depression in Black youth, and how they may be nuanced. Black youth often presents depression through physical complaints and interpersonal challenges. A kid may say, “I have a headache” and consistently complain about it. Or it may be a stomach ache. Those are warning signs we should pay particular attention to.
“The kid who is depressed may not be the kid in the back of the class with their head down; it may be the kid who is irritable when you try and engage them, or explosive. They may fight. Those kids tend to be suspended from school, particularly Black kids.”
Irritability is another big one. For example, I’ll often tell school personnel that the kid who is depressed may not be the kid in the back of the class with their head down; it may be the kid who is irritable when you try and engage them, or even explosive. They may fight. And those kids tend to be suspended from school, particularly Black kids. So I say to school personnel, before you suspend that kid for fighting or cursing the teacher out, why don’t you step back and explore what’s going on in their lives? I bet when you do that, you’ll get at the core of the issue, which then turns into a treatable problem through mental health. The same goes for parents.
In other words, don’t necessarily expect that a depressed teenager is going to show that through really obvious sadness.
I think parents should be focused on checking in with their kids, daily. We know that social media is really present in a lot of kids lives, so checking in with them about the kinds of experiences they’re having there is also important.
Overall, it’s about checking in with them. And being involved, actively, in their lives.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.