Raising awareness, decreasing stigma . . . Journeying alongside one another
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The rate of suicide among black children between the ages of 5 and 11 has nearly doubled since the 1990s. For the first time, this rate has surpassed figures for other racial groups. With little demographic specific research to substantiate this alarming shift, we are left to grapple with the question—why are black children committing suicide at higher rates than ever before?
With black lives so often represented as undervalued and less important, it is easy to internalize that message, particularly for elementary-aged children who aren’t developmentally equipped to process these experiences as discrimination. The psychological weight of prejudice, marginalization and socioeconomic disparities are heavy.
The overall environmental stresses endemic of racism have always bore a heavy toll, but racism isn’t a new phenomena, and black children have traditionally had significantly lower suicide rates than other demographics. There must be other factors contributing to this disturbing trend.
The desegregation of schools implemented to ensure equal educational opportunity also had an unintended adverse effect on overall classroom dynamics for black students. Federal data shows 83 percent of teachers in this country are white and 75 percent of teachers are female. This could be the reason why black students are four times more likely to be suspended and are shortchanged across the board.
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In an interview with Huffington Post, University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry researcher, Dr. Shervin Assari said, “This age group is mostly under the influence of the family. We know family-based interventions, which work. We know suicide prevention programs, which work. We know what works. We just need to implement it.”
Implementation of family-based interventions requires a significant investment of energy, time and mental bandwidth. According to a 2012 report published by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 72 percent of black children are raised in single-parent households. With the responsibility of parenting falling primarily on single, working mothers within the black community, the priority is often focused on more tangible immediate needs. Even with the best of intentions, the need for softer psychological well-being can sometimes be overlooked.
Family interventions and implementation of suicide prevention programs require an acknowledgment that an issue even exists. There is still a very real lack of acceptance of depression and overall mental health issues within the black community. The historic misuse of black people as chattel has perpetuated an internalized misconception that we are too strong to break or that depression is a white problem. These beliefs have not only made taboo the issues surrounding depression, but they also create the added burden of guilt and shame for those experiencing severe depression and suicidal thoughts.
The undeniable fact is that our babies are suffering, the lives of our children are at stake and it is going to require vigilance in order to reverse this destructive trend.