Black Child Suicide series landing page | Urban One | 2024-02-27
HomeAn American Crisis: Black Child Suicide

Where Have All The Children Gone?

Dismiss

Watch as NewsOne Senior Editor asha bandele expresses the urgency of addressing Black child suicide.

This series on Black child suicide will touch on serious themes that some readers may find to be disturbing and/or traumatizing. Still, it is a subject we must face, together, in the fight to save our children. There are resources and grounding exercises at the end of each article.

It’s not as though we didn’t hear the stories; news shared in shattering whispers, parent to parent, teacher to teacher, friend to friend. There was the second-grade boy who tried to hang himself using the cords from the classroom window blinds. There was the 15-year-old girl who jumped to her death from a building near her home. There was the author’s son, 12, who too jumped from his family’s brownstone roof; that one we called an accident and convinced ourselves he must have slipped.

As heart-numbing as that reality was, it was–what’s the right term, easier? That can’t be right. How is it easier to accept the tragedy of a death so out of season? And yet, somehow, it was. Because unpacking why a child of 12 would take his own life is almost irreconcilable with the human mind, body and soul. But finally, we must reconcile ourselves to it, we must find the courage to have a reckoning about our children and death by suicide. More than 130 people are dying by suicide each day in America. And none are more at risk than Black children and young Black adults.

We’re Losing Our Babies

Over the next month, NewsOne will be having the conversation none of us want to have but all of us finally must have. It’s a hard topic, a topic that our hearts, already so at risk, may tell us to walk away from. But walking away from the discussion is walking away from solutions that can lead to securing the children most precious to any one of us. 

Beyond the clear emotional challenge that even saying the words “suicide” and “Black child” in the same sentence is that in the public imagination, death by suicide has long been considered a White phenomenon— specifically a White male phenomenon. And while the actual losses by number are indeed greater in White male populations given their majority presentation in America, what’s also true is that the rising rate of deaths by suicide is most certainly and singularly Black phenomenon. Between 2018 and 2021 young Black people, 10 to 24 experienced the single largest rate of increase in deaths by suicide, 36%. In the last two years, that rate of increase has continued to climb: the rate of Black boys dying by suicide has leapt a breath-stealing 47% and 59% for our girls. 

More incomprehensibly, when tracked for the 16 years between 2001 and 2017, the National Institutes of Health found that the rate of Black girls dying by suicide was up an 182%, making what we believe about suicide actually a horrific gaslighting. Suicide prevention methods were developed, consciously or not, to support White men in particular, but the most at-risk population is actually the very opposite: Black girls and women. Indeed, the rate of suicide for every demographic except Black children, is declining. The youngest members of the Black community in America, children aged five to 12, die by suicide at twice the rate of their White peers.

Why Rates Have Risen

There are no plot twists when it comes to understanding why young Black people are at higher risk of dying by suicide. It’s largely because of White supremacy and the anti-Black racism that ensures Black communities are poorly served and exceptionally targeted for punitive responses to socially imposed harms rather than supportive ones, and likewise also targeted by policies that entrench poverty and all its consequent damages. For young Black people who identify as LGBTQIA+, the rate of death by suicide has long been documented as four times the national rate of children who do not so identify.

And it’s not that they’re more prone, as some might argue, to suicidal ideation or death by suicide. It’s that they’re more stigmatized and bullied, victimized by sexual predators, more likely to have their pain and experiences ignored when not dismissed altogether and more likely to be abandoned by family and community members. And given what is known about the rising rate of Black child suicide, it’s no leap to say that of all our children, our queer children are most in need of loving and wise intervention. Elle Moxely, founder of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, and a key activist from Ohio who traveled to Ferguson in 2014 and helped coordinate the now historic Movement for Black Lives gathering in 2015, will discuss this in greater detail later in the series.

An American Crisis: Black Child Suicide

For teens and young adults especially, but not solely, suicide is often driven by adverse childhood experiences, from poverty to state-sanctioned violence. Likely a quarter of all Black children live with PTSD because of the unmitigated, unaddressed and all-too-often excused violence visited upon them. Black children, whose lives have had little value in the eyes of the nation once they no longer were forced to labor as slaves, know those adverse experiences longer and more profoundly than their peers.

Black family disunification has been legislated in this nation since before its founding. Slavery legalized it then, and in the modern age the welfare laws advanced in the 1970s that forced fathers, stepfathers and other father-figures who were not tied to their families by blood or law, but by love, to be subject to quite literally being dragged out of homes in the thick of night. Were they to return, Black mothers risked loss of needed federal aid to ensure their children’s health and well-being. And these occurrences lived alongside robust media and academic campaigns that shouted that Black fathers abandoned their children by choice; that Black mothers were nasty, promiscuous women who intentionally, b*tch-like, became pregnant by anyone who happened along.

The Terrible Enduring American Message

As devastating as this was for Black parents – and the devastation was immeasurable – for Black children it meant coming into a world where it was regularly offered as fact that even their own parents didn’t want, love or care for them. They didn’t know that Black families stayed together at the rate everyone else did until the welfare laws forced mothers to choose; until first Black men – fathers, uncles, big brothers and cousins — were targeted for incarceration for offenses while White fathers, uncles, big brothers and cousins were immunized for the very same acts. And our children? They came into a world where they were cast as predators. The cascade of headlines about young Black people and gun-related deaths never scream that most of those deaths are deaths-by-suicide, not homicide. Black children are cast as otherworldly monsters in the public imagination but far more accurately, they should be cast as targets. 

Added up over more than two generations now, race-based social, psychological, physical and spiritual assaults against Black children are so uncompromising, that our babies as young as six-years-old absorb the most enduring of American messages: No Black Lives Will Ever Matter. 

Complicating things even more is that Black pain—physical and emotional—has long been minimized when it wasn’t entirely erased. The roots of psychology and psychotherapy didn’t even consider Black people mentally sophisticated enough to experience psychic pain. White supremacy living at the center of America’s medical field has consistently kept Black people from doctors, especially doctors who treat our minds. We were and still are a people whose very thoughts, made known, have been enough to condemn us to death, public death, lynchings. Assassinations. 

Think about it. 

A One Word Action Plan: Love

Black parents and caregivers across the board regularly have the talks with our children about what they can and cannot say not only to police, but also to any authority figures. Teachers, shopkeepers, doctors, nurses, and random-run-of-the-mill white women––Karens. A word – not even a wrong word—uttered to any of them can trigger torture and kidnapping, as in the case of the Central Park Five, or the death penalty, as in the case of Niani Finlayson, a domestic violence victim who never became a survivor because last December an LAPD White cop, within three seconds of entering her home where she’d called them begging for help, instead shot her four times and killed her. And no, she was not armed. And yes, she was being harmed. And yes, her 9-year-old daughter witnessed her mother being killed. Yes. 

In the face of institutions not only ignoring Black harm and trauma but also actively driving it, how can we wonder why so many of us opt for silence, opt to stay low? But that silence by no means should ever be equated with immunity from pain and trauma. Indeed, while Black child suicide is being reported today as on the incline since 2000, how do we even know that it wasn’t the case well before? Black deaths were not investigated like White deaths were. And there is no need to travel back to Tuskegee to underscore the vulgar complicity the medical industry has in treating Black patients with disregard. We can just look at the discriminatory practices during COVID-19. We can just ask ourselves how safe we feel in the hands of those who are supposed to heal us; those who are supposed to first do no harm. 

Yet there is good news even within all of this pain. It’s true that death by suicide among young Black people is driven largely by socially manufactured harms that birth metastasizing depression. Those terrible, and life-crushing social factors will require our ongoing, uncompromising, consistent advocacy and action. But there are also interventions that we can undertake right now, as Susan L. Taylor, legendary Essence Editor-in-Chief Emerita and founder and CEO of the National CARES Mentoring Movement will share with us as part of the series. We–the parents, the caregivers, the loving adults who engage our children regularly in multiple capacities, can be first-responders on this brutal battlefield. Just talking about suicide, mental health, depression and racism helps to reduce stigmas that isolate our children–and kill them. We can begin and elevate those conversations immediately. 

My name is asha bandele. I’m a Mother, an Auntie, a Godmother, a mentor and a woman who has always done my very best to place children at the center of my life and decisions. And I’m a  woman who almost daily feels afraid about our babies coming into this world that has yet to be made welcoming for them. I’m asking you to please summon with me the courage to turn toward the pain, to walk into the heart of it, to listen, to open the soul to new ways of feeling and thinking. To set aside judgments and fears and single narratives about our babies and begin the journey toward healing, toward ending Black child suicide, with love, the one-word action plan that all our children are pleading for. 

Love.

If you or someone you love is in need of support right now—or at any time—please dial 988 or text 741-741.

WATCH: Black Child Suicide: A Meditation For Survival With Dionne Monsanto

Please also feel free to make use of the following books, videos and websites:

BOOKS 

Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, by Terrie M. Williams

Description: The legendary celebrity PR executive delves into the emotional and psychological challenges faced by Black individuals, offering insights into how these struggles can affect children and adolescents.

Age Range: Adult readers, suitable for parents and caregivers of Black children and adolescents.

VIDEOS 

“Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice,” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard

Description: Addresses themes of racial injustice and provides guidance for parents on discussing difficult topics with children, including emotions and coping strategies.

Age Range: Children, recommended for ages 4-8.

“Teen Mental Health and Suicide in Black Families”

Description: This PBS documentary explores the unique challenges and experiences surrounding teen mental health and suicide within Black families, offering insights and resources for support.

Age Range: Teenagers and adults, recommended for ages 13 and up.

WEBSITES:

Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

Crisis Text Line