As we all know, our country is facing a significant youth mental health crisis. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that black youth–in particular–are facing their own crisis of struggling with suicide. This demographic is often overlooked when discussing the mental health crisis in America. And with the increased stigma the black community faces, it can be especially challenging for many black youth to talk about. In honor of Black History Month, we are bringing mental health to the forefront of discussions concerning the black community. We can better understand the pitfalls in the healthcare system and acknowledge the structural challenges that make accessing care more difficult for black youth.
There has been an increase in black youth suicide, specifically in the age range of 5 to 12 years old. The rate of suicide has doubled in the last 13 years. This came tied to a decrease in suicide among white youth. Black youth have the highest rate of suicide attempts across all demographics, except for American Indians and Alaskan natives. The rate of attempts among black youth has only increased in the last ten years. There is widespread concern for the increase in these attempts and suicidal ideations within the black community.
Unexpected life events seem to be at the base of these increases. While this demographic can be hit with many triggering events, the pandemic certainly propelled a surge in attempts and ideations. The pandemic has drastically caused an increase in unprecedented change, the adaption to an ever-evolving society, as well as grief and loss in the nation. This prompted an increase in mental health stressors for all, while this demographic fell behind with the least amount of access to help and support the youth in the communities. As the effects of the pandemic continue, even after the passage of the initial wave, this demographic needs to have more support and greater access to suicide prevention measures.
In 2020, GDBHT2022 speaker Brandon Johnson served as Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration's representative on the Health and Human Services Report to Congress on African-American Youth Suicide. The report came from information included in the Appropriations bill in 2019. Congress then challenged the Department of Health and Human services to assess the situation and provide information regarding what was happening, what is already known about this issue, and what programs are in place right now to support African-American young people and those who are in their lives. This prompted a push for many agencies to start looking into the risk factors and the protective factors for the prevention of these issues. It also encouraged the mental health field to focus more on what it should be doing to address these issues. Using information from the national violent death reporting system data, under which suicide is reported from each state, the CDC can evaluate the situations leading up to the event. These situations could induce financial issues, relationship issues, previous signs of mental health issues, mental health diagnosis if the person was seeing a mental health professional, school-based issues, and any traumatic life events or crises in the two weeks leading up to the suicide, etc. This reporting system was combed for information regarding youth, and they found that traumatic events, family and relationship problems, significant arguments or conflicts, or any predetermined mental health concerns were all prominent factors in these deaths. From this information, it was determined that family needs to be involved in the mental health and wellness of young people–as youth do not have the ability to handle everything for themselves. They need the family unit to tackle everyday concerns.
Another part of this demographic is understanding that there is not just one aspect to the black youth community. There is the LGBTQ portion, those in foster care, those experiencing homelessness, and many other risk factors on top of the black youth community, that are influencing the youth. There simply are not many intervention strategies to help handle these issues.
There are many companies and organizations out there that want to help and be a part of the solution. So, how can organizations help? Community engagement. In order to understand the fundamental needs of communities of color, understanding the individual needs and lack of access to care available to the youth must be acknowledged. Unfortunately, the challenges to accessing care are abundant–no health insurance, socioeconomic status, increased stigma, provider bias, and more. Engaging with the black community and being open to helping the youth in these communities is an important step in preventing the loss of life in the community.
As we address the pitfalls of the mental healthcare system for black youth, we can also celebrate the positive efforts in improving mental healthcare for black communities during Black History Month.
This article gathered insights from Brandon Johnson's presentation at our 2022 conference. You can watch his entire session here by searching "Brandon Johnson."