National Suicide Prevention Week runs from Sept. 8–14 to raise awareness about suicide and the resources available to help those struggling with mental health crises as suicide rates are rising significantly among African-American teens

A large-scale study from The University of Toledo, which was published in the Journal of Community Health, found the rate of suicide deaths among young black males increased by 60 percent from 2001 through 2017. Researchers documented a 182 percent increase in the rate of suicide deaths of young black females during that same time period.

Georgia had the highest rate in the nation, at 5.8 per 100,000 people, between 2015 and 2017. Following that was Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio.  "There are far more African American adolescents attempting suicide than has been recognized in the past, and their attempts are starting to be much more lethal," according to Dr. James Price. Currently, suicide is the second leading cause of death after homicide for African Americans between the ages of 13 and 19, and the rate continues to climb. Equally troubling is that the methods black youth are using in suicide attempts are among the most lethal. This study suggests there is a greater need for mental health services in urban school districts, and that we need to do a better job in convincing parents and caregivers to safely secure firearms and ammunition in the home. Taking those measures, Dr. James Price said, could save lives.

African American Mental Health....

According to the American Psychiatric Association, ethnic and racial minorities often bear a disproportionately high burden of disability caused by mental disorders. Though rates of diagnosed depression are lower in African American (24.6%) populations than in whites (34.7%), depression in African American communities is likely to be more persistent and severe. Moreover, African American adults are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults. Some of the reasons for African Americans not getting the treatment they need include systemic barriers, such as lack of insurance, mental illness stigma, distrust in the healthcare system and lack of diversity and cultural competence in mental healthcare providers. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness cites homelessness and exposure to violence as factors that greatly affect African Americans’ mental health. African Americans make up about 13% of the U.S. population, but 40% of the U.S. homeless population. Additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness states African American children are more likely to be exposed to violence than other children.

African Americans have a general distrust of the healthcare system, and with good reason. This fear and distrust stems from a long history of doctors mistreating, abusing and testing on African American bodies without their consent--dating back to slavery. The Tuskegee experiment is an example of this. The Tuskegee experiment began in 1932 at a time when there was no known treatment for syphilis. After being recruited by the promise of free medical care, 600 men originally were enrolled in the project. The participants were primarily black sharecroppers, and many had never before visited a doctor. Doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), which was running the study, informed the participants—399 men with latent syphilis and a control group of 201 others who were free of the disease—they were being treated for bad blood, a term commonly used in the area at the time to refer to a variety of ailments. 

The men were monitored by health workers but only given placebos such as aspirin and mineral supplements, despite the fact penicillin became the recommended treatment for syphilis in 1947. PHS researchers convinced local physicians in Macon County not to treat the participants, and research was done at the Tuskegee Institute. In order to track the disease’s full progression, researchers provided no effective care as the men died, went blind or insane or experienced other severe health problems due to their untreated syphilis. Some of the participants' spouses contracted the disease and passed it to their children at birth.  As a result of the Tuskegee experiment, many African Americans developed a lingering, deep mistrust of public health officials.

Book recommendationMedical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington, Ron Butler, et al.

Today, mental health care still fails people of color. A study published by PubMed Central (PMC) found that after entering care, minority patients are less likely than white patients to receive the best available treatments for depression and anxiety. 

The effects of mental illness in communities of color contribute to the cycle of oppression. Children of color with behavioral issues are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system due to harsher punishments they face in schools, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

During Suicide Prevention Week, it is important to recognize that mental illness heavily affects people of color.