African-American children more likely to commit suicide, prompts calls for more comprehensive approach

In the past five years, the suicide rate among African-American children has increased by 75 percent, compared to a 23 percent increase for white children and 18 percent increase for American Indian and Alaska Native children. This trend highlights that African-American children are at heightened risk for suicide because they are more likely to experience trauma and mental health challenges, such as depression and a lack of social support and safety, according to a study published by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

One of the most striking facts about this increase is that the majority of the increase in African-American children dying by suicide occurred in the 24- to 34-year-old age group, according to the study. “While we have not ascertained the reasons for the reason behind the increase, the long-term trend among this age group in recent years is troubling,” co-author of the study Jacqueline K. McCormick, PhD, MPH, professor and public health outreach director at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine said in a press release.

Other data suggest there may be more African-American children struggling with suicide, but a lack of screening and insufficient access to treatment may be the major barrier to help. “In urban centers, where the vast majority of youth live, many youth do not seek out mental health services at the first sign of struggle. Often, the first time clinicians will notice their children has mental health difficulties is in response to [a] suicide attempt or an episode of behavioral outbursts,” Dr. McCormick said.

The US Department of Health and Human Services has created suicide prevention guidelines for clinicians and health care providers, which includes documenting child trauma history and asking about mental health problems.

Some programs designed to prevent suicide have been aimed at African-American children. The Youth Health and Welfare Project in Oakland, Calif., has found that African-American boys are twice as likely to contemplate suicide, three times as likely to attempt suicide, and five times as likely to attempt to take their own life compared to white and Hispanic boys.

Dr. McCormick has advocated for multiple approaches to address the cause of the suicide epidemic. “One solution is using the tools available to identify suicidal youth and provide them with access to treatment and care.” According to the CDC, there are several ways to screen a child who is depressed or suicidal. “For children who do show signs of symptoms of depression,” Dr. McCormick said, “it is important to recognize these signs, to provide them with the help they need, and to take action.”

Dr. McCormick suggests the following:

• Collecting records to screen at-risk youth;

• Comprehensive assessments that collect data to screen the population based on their socio-economic status, age, race, and family relationships to assess all suicide risk factors;

• Integrating depression treatment and resources into programs and community health initiatives;

• Diagnosing children at age 7 or younger with depression, providing resources for children through primary care providers, youth mental health centers, school counselors, and child welfare counselors, before they become isolated or suicidal;

• Providing evidence-based education on suicide prevention;

• Taking effective interventions to teach children skills that lead to a more supportive, happy, healthy and successful life;

• Creating community support systems for suicidal youth and families;

• Focusing on suicide prevention prevention and education, focused on children from birth to age 14, for African-American youth;

• Implementing more culturally relevant interventions that align with the needs of African-American children;

• Developing integrated mental health services systems for African-American youth.

A comprehensive, community-based approach to suicide prevention and treatment would help to identify risk.

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