Phyllis Kimber Wilcox | VOICE News

California teen Jo’Vianni Smith was only 15 years-old when she committed suicide during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but even before the deadly virus took over our lives, disparities existed between the most vulnerable populations and the most affluent when it came to access to all forms of health care.

15-year-old Jo’Vianni Smith took her own life in April 2020.

There are many reasons for these existing disparities, however they are being most deeply felt in a time of plague. 

Last year, US. News and World Report pointed to a trio of crises that have shaken the Black community—in particular, the impact of  COVID-19, the wobbly economy, and the death of George Floyd. These tripartite calamities left the community shaken:

“There’s a public health term, ‘syndemic,’ that means the convergence of multiple big-time stressors,” says Nadine Kaslow, a professor of psychiatry in the Emory University School of Medicine.

While suicide rates among Blacks and Asian Pacific Islanders are much lower than  among First Nation and Alaskan Natives and Whites, the recent increases in suicidality among Blacks is genuinely concerning.

Contributing Factors

There are many factors exacerbating this syndemic including a well-founded historic mistrust between the Black community and healthcare providers as well as endemic levels of poverty and lack of access to quality healthcare. Top this off with the stigmatization of mental illness that continues to plague Black communities and you have the ingredients for a coming crisis.

When discussing the shared experience of the Black community with impediments to mental healthcare the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) states “[A]nother part of this shared experience is facing racism, discrimination and inequity that can significantly affect a person’s mental health.”

In the past few years, there is an increasing awareness these burdens are falling more heavily on Black children and Black teens.

“Across the board, suicide rates among young Americans have risen; from 2007 to 2018, suicide rates for Americans ages 10 to 24 rose by 57 percent,”  Time magazine reported. And while suicide rates have levelled off from 2018 through 2020 in line with the latest available data, suicide rates among Black girls make up a large portion of the past increase, an alarming sign.

While Black suicide rates have been lower than other demographic groups in the past, according to Time, each generation of Blacks are more likely to act on suicidal thoughts than the generation before it.  In 2016 and 2018 suicides spiked among Black children ages five to  eleven making this demographic group the one with the highest levels of suicidality. Black high school boys have more serious suicide attempts which require medical attention.

While suicide rates have dropped for White children, they have gone up for Black children. Black boys’ increase in suicide attempts have caused an increase in physical damage caused by those attempts and are an indicator of alarm.

Barriers to Mental Health Care

The barriers to Black mental health care are many, some factors are historic, while others are structural. Black people are viewed differently by healthcare providers as well as society in general. A study conducted by the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, reported on a phone-based field experiment of the impact mental help seekers’ race, class, and gender has on the accessibility of psychotherapists. Three hundred and twenty psychotherapists each received voicemail messages from one Black middle-class and one White middle-class help seeker, or from one Black working-class and one White working-class help seeker, all requesting an appointment.

The results revealed an otherwise invisible form of discrimination. Middle-class help seekers had appointment offer rates almost three times higher than their working-class counterparts. Race differences emerged only among middle-class help-seekers, with Blacks considerably less likely than Whites to be offered an appointment. Average appointment offer rates were equivalent across gender, but women were favored over men for appointment offers in their preferred time range.”

According to a study by the Journal of Community Health, “Black youths are two times more likely to die by suicide compared to their White counterparts,” says Arielle Sheftall, a researcher at the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and one of the authors of the 2019 Pediatrics study, The Changing Characteristics of African American Adolescent Suicides, 2001-2017. The report noted how Black children ages 13 to 15 years of age have disproportionately high suicide rates. In addition, from 2001 through 2017, suicide rates for Black males increased by 60 percent and for Black females by 182 percent.

Why is this happening and what can be done about it?

The Black Voice News spoke with Dr. Annelle Primm with the Steve Fund regarding the increased rates of suicide among young Black people. She specializes in serving the mental health needs of young people of color from adolescence to adulthood and helped author the report titled, Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America,

“Over the last several years data has emerged showing an alarming increase in suicide rates of Black children and teenagers over the past generation and for teenagers in particular, while the rates of suicide attempt have been going down for all of the other racial groups.” According to Primm however, African Americans were showing the opposite trend, with increases over the last decade or so.

In addition to the trend already in place prior to the pandemic and prior to the racial reckoning, she explained, “There are concerns there have been increases above and beyond that. “I’m seeing some reports now saying the nation on the whole, which was bracing for significant increases in suicide as  a result of the pandemic people have not seen.”

The data is still coming in, Primm explained, that would look at this past year but there have been some reports of increasing rates of suicide in certain parts of the country.

Another concern regarding COVID-19 and the disruption in the educational experience for students universally, but in particular, Black school-age children, is that it was extremely unfortunate not only for whatever negative effects the disruption will have on education and academic achievement into the future, but it is also concerning that whatever little mental health support was being offered in schools where Black and other children of color attend, “Those supports were absent when children had to stay home,” she explained.

Whatever little mental health support was being offered in schools where Black and other children of color attend were absent when children had to stay at home.(Source: Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America)

Primm stressed the need to increase awareness around the warning signs of mental health distress. Those signs include depression, anxiety, toxic levels of stress and trauma. “We need to increase access to mental health support systems in schools which are historically understaffed.”

Many times, these are the only places underserved communities can access this kind of care because of the myriad of issues people can come up against including not having the proper kinds of insurance. Community organizations such as Primm’s try to bridge the service gap, but the need is great. 

Primm also spoke about working to remove the stigma that still exists around mental illness and seeking treatment when we notice the warning signs in loved ones, friends, and family.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255. To locate nearest the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for support visit this website and enter your zip code.

Phyllis Kimber-Wilcox is a student and reporter for Black Voice News. Her interests are the intersections of historic events with contemporary realities and their impacts on the persistent social, structural and economic barriers which continue to adversely affect and limit Black lives with an eye toward  community-based  solutions. 

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