Suicide attempts have declined among teens overall, with the major exception of black teens, found a study based on nationwide data from 200,000 high school students collected between 1991 and 2017. The study, published in Pediatrics, showed that self-reported suicide attempts increased proportionally in black teens, even though they decreased or followed no significant trend in white, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native teens.
More research is needed
Overall female suicide attempts declined among teens in general, but rose among black female teens. The research also found a significant increase in injuries from suicide attempts in black male teens. However, the current study does not explain why the rates are higher among black high school students compared to other racial and ethnic groups—so experts are calling for more research to understand more.
“Rising suicidality is the tip of an iceberg that should compel us to ask not only what are these children doing to themselves, but ask about the structural and racist violence of our society—what is society doing to them?” urged Gary Belkin, former deputy health commissioner of New York City and founder of the Billion Minds Institute.
Experts point to several potential causes of this trend
Amy Green, director of research at The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization, pointed out the lack of access to mental health services for young people of color as one important factor. Michael Lindsey, lead author of the study and executive director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University, agrees that schools need more counselors who are specifically trained in the interpersonal challenges that black youth are likely to face.
“It’s important for parents, mental health service providers and school personnel to learn the signs of depression in black youth,” said Lindsey. “Suicidality can stem from untreated depression and, in addition to the classic signs of depression, such as becoming withdrawn or having a depressed mood, black teens may present with physical complaints, such as persistent headaches or stomach aches or with interpersonal challenges, such as angry outbursts, which may be construed as behavioral problems rather than cries for help.”
Help is available
For anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts and urges—or for concerned parents, friends, teachers, and loved ones—the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 confidential support via phone at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Anyone in crisis can also text HOME to 741741 to receive 24/7 confidential support from a trained volunteer counselor at the Crisis Text Line. Another source of judgment-free, 24/7 help via phone, text, or online chat, particularly for LGBTQ or questioning youth, is The Trevor Project.