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Skyrocketing black teen suicides 'alarming'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Correction: Arin Adams died by suicide in 2006. A previous version of this article misstated the year.

Anthony Adams and his former wife struggled to find treatment facilities in Detroit to help their daughter, Arin, who died by suicide in 2006. She was 21.

And since Arin was an adult, they couldn’t force her to do anything without going to court.

People march for suicide awareness in Detroit. According to a recent study, suicides among black teens soared between 2001 and 2017.

Adams, the former deputy mayor of Detroit, recently moderated a panel in the city for fathers who’ve lost a child. He says there needs to be more awareness in the African-American community about mental health issues, adding there’s a severe stigma about getting help because no one wants to be labeled as “weak.”

But “seeking help is actually an act of strength because it allows you to understand your pain,” he said.

Suicide rates among African-American teens, especially girls, have skyrocketed since 2001, highlighting the need for better mental health awareness and services in the black community, experts say.

According to the University of Toledo study published in late June in the Journal of Community Health, the suicide rate among African-American males between the ages of 13 and 19 jumped 60% between 2001 and 2017, and a staggering 182% for black girls. In 2017 alone, 68,528 black teen males and 94,760 black teen females made suicide attempts serious enough that they had to be treated by health professionals.

"We need to improve our overall approach (to suicide)," said Anne Perry, the Michigan area director with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to any of this. Suicide is very complex."

Michigan had the seventh highest rate of suicide among African-American teens, according to the study, "The Changing Characteristics of African-American Adolescent Suicides, 2001-2017." 

Experts say a number of factors likely play a role in the alarming rates -- limited availability of mental health services in the black community, access to firearms, distrust of the medical community and other factors. The study found African-American teen males were most likely to use firearms (52%) to kill themselves while African-American girls were more likely to hang or suffocate themselves.

Danielle Busby, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan's Department of Psychiatry and a member of the university's Youth Depression and Suicide Prevention Program team, calls the findings "alarming." Still, she's glad the study was published because "we know it's out there."

"But we don’t always look at it for these unique differences as it relates to race and ethnicity," said Busby.

Busby has done research working with African-American college students and determining the barriers to getting help. Even for students who were identified to be at an elevated risk for suicide -- meaning they tested positive on screens for depression, suicide ideation, misuse of alcohol or had a previous suicide attempt -- Busby's study found that the most common barrier to seeking services was whether or not a student perceived he or she needed help.

"Whether or not someone thinks they need something is going to highly determine whether or not they actually go seek that service," said Busby.

Access to services

The "Changing Characteristics" study -- authored by James Price, a professor emeritus of health education and public health at the University of Toledo, and Jagdish Khubchandani, a health science professor at Ball State University -- is the largest study to date that examines suicidal behaviors of African-American adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19.

It was based on Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, which are given every two years to thousands of youths across the country, and the web-based Injury Statistic Query and Reporting System between 2001 and 2017, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and tracks causes of death.

Price said he and Khubchandani didn't study the reasons why the rates jumped so much, but previous literature and research shows various reasons for why adolescents in general try to take their lives: relationship problems, abuse, bullying and access to guns.

Biology also is likely at play. Adolescents lack pre-frontal lobe maturity -- the area that makes executive decision-making -- and high impulsivity is an issue, especially in young men, Price said.

"Maturity of the pre-frontal cortex doesn't occur until 24-26," said Price. "... What you get often is that young people will have some sort of stressful event in their life and they literally have this cognitive constriction in which they don't see the alternatives to choosing some way out of this problem that is more appropriate."

The University of Toledo study comes just one year after another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that suicide rates also are increasing among even younger African-American children, those 5 to 12.  

In Michigan, suicide is the second leading of death for all youth, not just African-Americans, between the ages of 10 and 24. 

Perry, with American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says these statistics highlight why education is so important when it comes to suicide prevention and looking for warning signs.

"There's a lot of transition in those years that we're talking about, whether it's adolescence in general, and then going off to college, or starting a career, or starting a family," said Perry. "That's what we call the environmental outside factor. If there are underlying mental health issues, that can be the catalyst that can make these problems come out."

Perry said financial constraints are one reason why parents struggle to get help for their kids.

"One of the main things we get is 'I can't afford it' or 'My insurance won't cover me to go to a therapist or I can't send my child there because I don't have the money for that,'" said Perry. "We definitely need to work on that."

That's why schools play a key role in boosting education and simply recognizing suicide warning signs when it comes to kids, says Perry. A state law, the Chase Edwards Law, named after a 12-year-old Brighton boy who died by suicide in 2003, encourages districts -- but doesn't mandate them -- to spend two hours a year teaching educators the warning signs and risk factors for suicide and depression. Perry says her group is working to mandate that requirement.

"The problem is that when we see these (suicide) rates starting at 12 (years old), those issues are underlying have been there from when those children are 6,7, 8 and 9 and that's when we need that early intervention," said Perry. "Educators and teachers can know signs to look out for. They just don't because they haven't had that training."

Stigma around suicide may also be a factor in why some don't get help. Stigma comes in many forms, says Busby. In black religious communities, some fear getting help is a reflection on their faith. 

"One stigma that exists there is this idea if I need this additional help, maybe my faith hasn’t been strong enough," said Busby.

Coping skills

As suicide rates surge among adolescents, experts agree it's imperative that parents and students learn not just the warning signs but even the basics of mental health.

At the University of Michigan, Busby co-founded a group called Black Mental Wellness. They partnered with the city of Detroit, teaching kids in kindergarten through 12th grade about mental health and their emotions, breaking down what it feels like to be sad or anxious.

They also worked with parents.

"When we’re talking about seeking services for something, a kid can want to get help, but a parent has to be part of that – or at least give permission," said Busby.

And teaching kids coping skills from the beginning is vital, she said.

"We know if they have the skills to deal with some of these things early and develop good coping strategies they’ll have a better chance later," she said. 

Perry, whose group will host its annual "Out of the Darkness" walk in September in Detroit's Hart Plaza for those affected by suicide, says there's no one answer to preventing suicide when it comes to kids. 

"There's a lot of different pieces that will help bring these rates down," she said. "...It's educating our doctors, educating our teachers and just the general public on what to look out for -- and having better access to that help."

Teens & Key Suicide Risk Factors

  • A recent or serious loss, including the death of a family member, a friend or pet.
  • A psychiatric disorder, particularly a mood disorder such as depression or a trauma.
  • Alcohol or other substance use, or engaging in high-risk behavior.
  • Struggling with sexual orientation.
  • A family history of suicide.
  • Lack of social support.
  • Bullying.
  • Access to firearms.
  • Stigma associated with asking for help.
  • Barriers to accessing services.