Are black children dying of suicide? Only research can tell us | Bobby Brown

Reality check: are there more black children dying of suicide?

“Children are dying …”

That is the beginning of the first couple of paragraphs of an excellent book.

That first paragraph was published on 26 April 2017 by Florida’s Department of Children and Families. On Wednesday, the article in the Washington Post was updated to read: “Children are dying.”

Time and time again I see news reports that compare black youth with teenagers living in Thailand, where they are more likely to take their own lives. The Washington Post report notes that African American youth make up 13% of the population, but they make up about a third of suicides among all youth. But whatever the statistics show, suicide is a private problem in communities of color; each suicide will not be reported as public policy changes are being considered or proposals are put into place.

Suicide is a serious problem; what’s worrying is that while evidence shows a link between African American boys being underserved in mental health services and elevated risk of suicide, many mental health professionals remain skeptical that we have a sufficient picture of this startling trend. The editorial states the obvious; we need to seriously consider de-stigmatizing suicide and cracking down on gendered (and race) racialized biases.

Dangers and social determinants

Suicide is a heinous act, but I am concerned that as we work to resolve the challenges that are preventing black children from living out their lives, we often overlook the underlying roots of such suffering. I am concerned that many attempts to address suicide represent work in proxy, and are not fully connected to substance-use disorders, poverty, racism, school, and violence – but rather generalisation that can be seen as harmful.

Racism and segregation are at the heart of the issue, yet we must collectively speak to these problems and create a new understanding that may help to elevate this tragedy. The Washington Post report provides the nuanced details: one particular group of girls who were shot are more likely to commit suicide than other girls; suicides are three times more likely among black students at the worst performing schools; some black teens live in gangs.

I know that many people will be moved to continue looking for specific solutions. I would like to suggest, however, that there is more work to be done across the board to help these children and their families. We must learn from them. The past tragedies are close to home, and we must learn from what was said and done at the time of the 2008 shooting at Virginia Tech.

“That horrible day changed everything.”

Those who perished were young people who left behind families, friends, lovers, friends of friends, those who worked in that school and those who loved and mentored students. We must remember those who were lost, and their loved ones. But we must also move forward. A life is not theirs to have.

• Bobby Brown, Danai Gurira, David Banner, James Baldwin, Charlotte Allen, Landon Miles, Fred Rogers, and others write of what it means to be black and a life in this new book. Edited by Victor White. Published by Gallery Press. Excerpted by permission of Gallery Press. All rights reserved.

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