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Alarming Suicide Trends in African American Children: An Urgent Issue

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Date: July 23, 2019
Category: Mental Health

The suicide rate among African American children aged 5 to 11 years has increased substantially since 1993 and is persisting, according to Dr. Jeffrey Bridge, a leading researcher at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital. In 1993 suicide ranked as the 14th leading cause of death among this population. Today it’s the 10th leading cause of death—with rates nearly twice that of their White counterparts. While it is not intuitive and is difficult to understand, suicide ranks as a leading cause of death among all youth aged 5-11 years. Dr. Bridge and his colleagues are among the first to spearhead suicide research within this young population, and their work has revealed these concerning trends in suicidal behaviors among African American children.

In observance of National Minority Mental Health Awareness month this July, SAMHSA’s Office of Behavioral Health Equity is bringing attention to suicide among African American children. A year ago, SAMHSA convened a Virtual Roundtable of leading experts on African American mental health and wellness to identify ethnic-specific risk and protective factors contributing to suicidal behaviors in children. The experts emphasized the need for early identification of mental health problems in children, better outreach and engagement of children and their families, understanding family and community factors that impact children’s mental health, and the urgent need for culturally responsive and effective mental health services geared for young children of color.

Improving mental health services for young children of color requires an approach that is culturally and linguistically informed. This includes screening, assessment, referral, early intervention, and treatment and support. It also requires providers that: understand the culture; know how to engage young children and their families; are willing to work to establish a trusting relationship; and are able to address the community conditions that put children and families at risk of mental health problems. It’s also important to understand that mental health problems in children manifest differently than in adults. It should also be noted that mental health problems in children of different cultures, races, and ethnicities may also present differently. For example, according to the American Psychological Association Work Group on Health Disparities in Boys and Men, racial and ethnic minorities express depression—an important indicator of suicidal risk—differently. Mental health providers often have trouble detecting depression in African American populations, leaving many African Americans with undiagnosed and untreated depression. Similarly, African American boys are over-diagnosed with externalizing disorders such as attention deficit disorders or conduct disorders, when in fact, these could be manifestations of an underlying depression.

The persistent suicide trend should prompt a call to action among practitioners that work in child-serving systems, such as pediatric and family health care, schools, child welfare; mental health providers and researchers. It should also be a call to action for faith-based communities, families and particularly fatherhood initiatives, and community leadership. Collaborating together to prevent child suicide is critical. And reaching out to and saving children who endure such pain as to want to take their own life is of the utmost urgency.

For additional resources on suicide prevalence and prevention in African American children: