Suicide rates among Black Americans are increasing by double digits
A conversation with Sean Joe, one of the leading experts on suicide in the Black community
For decades, the rate of suicide among Black Americans was a fraction of what it was for white people. But in recent years, suicide is becoming more common in the Black community. For Black children 12 and under, the suicide rate is now higher than it is for white kids.
The incidence of suicide among Black folks rose 19.2% over three years, from an age-adjusted rate of 7.3 suicides per 100,000 people in 2018 to 8.7 in 2021, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this year. The health policy research organization, the Kaiser Family Foundation, reported that suicide in the Black community jumped 58% from 2011 to 2021.
The total number of suicides in the Black community in 2021 — 3,692 — was still dwarfed by the number of white people taking their own lives (36,681). But among Black children and young adults ages 10 to 24, suicides grew an astonishing 36.6% from 2018 to 2021, the CDC said. For Black people ages 25 to 44, the increase was 22.9%. Comparable rates for white people either declined or were flat over the same timeframe, except for people over 65, where there was a 1% increase. (The highest rate of suicide reported by the CDC was among American Indian or Alaska Natives, although their overall number was relatively small.)
|race/ethnicity||*2011 Suicide Death Rate||*2021 Suicide Death Rate||Change in % (2011 to 2021)|
|Asian or Pacific Islander||6.0||7.0||16.7|
|American Indian or Alaska Native||16.5||28.1||70.3|
|*Source: KFF||*Per 100,000 population||*Per 100,000 population|
“There’s been a popular myth that Black people don’t commit suicide, so not much attention has been paid to the growing crisis,” Michael A. Lindsey, dean of New York University’s School of Social Work, remarked during a National Institute of Mental Health webinar in 2020, summing up the dilemma facing researchers over public awareness of the issue.
Some attention has been brought to it recently as several Black celebrities have taken their own lives. Those includes musician Ian Alexander, the 26-year-old son of actress Regina King; So You Think You Can Dance judge Stephen “tWitch” Boss, 40, also known for his role on the Ellen DeGeneres Show; 2019 Miss USA winner Cheslie Kryst, 30; and former NBA executive Lance Blanks, 56.
Researchers say there is no single reason people take their own lives. Relationship and financial problems and substance abuse can contribute to suicidal behavior and ideation. They attribute the increase in suicides among Black people to a variety of factors, including underdiagnosis of mental health conditions, lack of access to mental health services, structural barriers to that care, the availability of firearms, and racism and discrimination.
They say they’re encouraged that entertainers and athletes – including tennis player Naomi Osaka, gymnast Simone Biles and Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan – are helping to destigmatize mental health concerns by talking openly about their personal struggles.“What that signals is that it’s OK for others to also express themselves and to reach out for help,” said Sean Joe, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “It normalizes the importance of getting space to be able to talk through your challenges, talk through your pain, talk through your stress.”
To get further context on the problem, Andscape spoke with Joe, one of the nation’s authorities on suicide in the Black community.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s happening to the suicide rate?
Suicide continues to increase, particularly among young Black Americans. And we saw an increase in those under 35 during the last couple years, from 2018 to 2021. We didn’t see the same increases for white Americans. And I believe we saw a little less increase also for Latinos in the United States.
One doctor I talked to told me that in the past suicide was considered a “white family issue.” How did we get to this increase for Black people?
Historically, there was very little work being done looking at suicide among any other population other than primarily whites. So if you go back, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, people just really categorize death information between whites and non-whites. But suicide has always impacted Black Americans. The issue has changed over time and in several concerning ways.
The data show higher rates of suicide for Black children, those under 12, now than white children. That never happened before, to my knowledge. The other concern was, as the decades moved forward, we saw younger and younger Black Americans who were dying by suicide. And what I mean is that, when we looked at the data in the ’70s or ’80s, the highest-risk group was roughly those 45 and under, or those in what we call true adulthood. But now it’s Blacks under 35 and, in fact, the group with the highest rates are those between 20 and 24.
Why is this happening?
There are a few things. One is the level of mental illness impacting Black Americans in ways that it never has. Two is the access to firearms, because guns are the primary methods used by Black Americans to take their own life. Three, you must understand suicide among Black Americans is predominantly a male phenomenon.
What’s going on with the mental health aspect of this?
There is poor access to mental health services. And it’s not just whether the services are available, which is an issue, but what’s available. How good is it?
Also, I do believe how Black Americans are coping with the experience of living in America is very different than how Black Americans coped before. And because of the changes in what it’s like to grow up being Black in America and Black and male in America is very different than it was for previous generations. There’s been progress, but there’s also been some challenges that have not changed. But how we cope and how we interpret our experiences are very different now.
Are you talking about social and psychological trauma?
When people decide to engage in suicidal behavior, they do it for a variety of different reasons. But one of the things that they are deciding is that their death is of more value to them than their life. When we look at the experiences of Black Americans, you can’t ignore the level of pain that these Black Americans, particularly these males, are going through, the emotional pain, the significant level of isolation because of the way we raise men just generally in this country and Black men, in particular. What do they do with the hurt and pain? Where’s the space for that healing? Where’s that space even for declaring you were hurt?
So they’re living with this pain and no access to treatment, no culture that really promotes the importance of getting treatment. We’ve been suffering from these sorts of social-contextual factors for a while. And that puts us at significant risk for what we call internalizing problems, self-blaming, no matter what the context – self-blaming for poverty, self-blaming for all the social traumas and the experiences of being Black and male in the United States. And the more you do that, the more you devalue yourself or the level of pain becomes too intolerable.
What role do firearms play in this?
Firearm-related suicide is the leading method used to take anyone’s life in the United States, Black, white, whatever. Except if you’re female, it’s second [behind poisoning]. And if you use a gun, you have a 95% chance of dying. The level of skill set necessary to use a gun is much less than it is to use something else to harm yourself.
We have about 400 million firearms in America today, and only 335 million people. This doesn’t bode well for solving the problem, does it?
No, it doesn’t. Our main point is, if you have a firearm and you love to use firearms for recreation and sport and whatever, go right ahead. But our question is when someone is in suicidal crisis, how do you help them protect themselves by allowing them to limit their access to those firearms and they can get them back. But we have to have processes, safe places for storage. You have to help people because most of the literature tells you if a firearm is in a home and someone is high risk for suicide, their level of risk for dying by suicide goes up significantly.
What effect did COVID have on the increase in Black suicides?
I wasn’t concerned so much about the increase in suicide risk during COVID but after COVID. What happens when you move past the threat of this invisible physical illness? You have all this complicated grief, not only about death and the lack of being able to grieve, but you also had complicated grief related to other things that you lost – people’s jobs, progress, family celebrations. And then you have this behavioral health crisis. We don’t have enough clinicians in our capacity to help us heal. We have to invest in clinicians who can work with Black males. Clinicians who know how to do this work. Counselors. Social workers. Psychologists. Psychiatrists. You don’t have the right people or enough training to do this work.
What are some risk factors for suicide and suicidal behaviors?
If you have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, your chance of considering suicide and dying by suicide is higher for Black Americans, whether it’s adolescents or adults. One study we did found that a diagnosis of anxiety was a stronger predictor of Black male suicide than depression.
The other thing is cultural differences. Why are suicide rates lower in the South than in the northern parts of the U.S.? You’ve got Black culture, you got Black connectivity. That kind of connection matters and it tends to be greater in the South because of either tradition or density of people.
What about faith?
The extent that you’re connected deeply in church matters. And it’s not just that you attend. It’s the level of connection to others who are caring about you, asking about you, checking on you. Greater connection, reduced isolation – all those things matter.
What have you learned about the role of social media on suicide in the Black community?
The evidence is not clear on what it means for Black Americans, but we have to be concerned about it because lots of Black American youth have access to a cellphone. There’s a lot of content on there. And we still have to do more science to understand the direct impact. But also think about social media and the internet as an opportunity to increase access to protective things – to services – and how are we going to use that.
What, if anything, keeps you encouraged?
Here’s one on the bright side for me. It is watching these young superstar athletes talk about the importance of their mental-health space and therapy. I feel extremely encouraged by that because that’s a new phenomenon, and the openness for them to be able to talk about this.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.