Home Health Glenn Ellis Ellis: Suicide among blacks rise to level of alarm

Ellis: Suicide among blacks rise to level of alarm

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By Glenn Ellis

We got to do something yeah to save the children

Soon it will be their turn to try and save the world

Right now, they seem to play such a small part of

The things that they soon be right at the heart of

We got to do something yeah to save the children

-Gil Scott-Heron-

 

Like many of you reading this column, I never thought the day would come when suicide among blacks would rise to the level of alarm. Well, the day has come. On an average day in the United States, one African American dies by suicide every 4.5 hours.

Despite the widespread impact of self-directed violence in the United States, the problem has frequently been viewed as a one solely affecting European American males and the affluent in our society.

It’s true that the rate of suicides is higher for whites than blacks.

The problem is that the data that is used can be very misleading. The current rate of suicide for blacks is around 6 percent of all causes of death. However, researchers are saying this this figure is misleading because many black deaths are often misclassified. Due to better recordkeeping by law enforcement, coroners, and family members, the actual numbers are starting to increase for blacks.

Societal attitudes towards African-American men may also partly explain why suicide data is incomplete. Make no mistake, the number one recorded cause of death for African-American males between the ages of 15 and 34 is homicide. Black men are 14 times more likely than white men to die by firearm homicide.

However, when criminologists talk about violence, we often focus on how demographic factors such as race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status and gender apply to outward violence, or violence toward other people. But I believe that we should also talk about how these factors influence inward violence, or violence toward oneself.

But are these deaths often characterized by law enforcement, coroners and family as accidental or homicidal when, in fact, the individual wanted or expected to die? African-American and Hispanic suicides have historically been more misclassified than white suicide – and still are to this day.

African American suicides may be “disguised” in the form of “victim-precipitated homicides” which is simply considered a suicide because the victim intentionally engages in behavior in a life-threatening situation that almost guarantees that another person (like a police officer) will kill them. Some estimates are that nearly 30 percent of urban homicides are “victim-precipitated”.

Which leads us to the 800-pound gorilla in the room: One of the most blatant risk factors is a subject that is often not talked about in black communities: mental illness. This is particularly true in the younger segments of black communities. Having a mental illness significantly increases suicide risk among black teens and adults. Although depression must be addressed, the strongest mental health predictor of attempted suicide in this population is anxiety.

As we all sit back and watch the resources and funding being taken away from public schools, little attention is paid to the fact that counselors and psychological supports have gone away as well.

One bright spot in this cloud is that blacks who are socially connected through organized religious affiliation have a lower suicide risk. But what about the rest of us? What about those young people who face the trials and tribulations of simply, growing up while black? We are learning, more and more, that social stressors, such as the perception and realities of racism increase suicide risk among blacks. This is heightened for our young people.

Young black males are most at risk, although there has been a recent rise in suicide rates among black children of both sexes under age 13. About 20 years ago, studies highlighted a marked increase in suicide rates among black males ages 15 to 19 that put them on par with white youth of similar ages.

More elementary-aged African-American children have been taking their own lives than ever before; and black boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 12 are doing so at roughly twice the rate of white kids the same age!

Studies indicate that Caribbean black males have the highest rates of attempted suicide among black Americans.

While increased suicide risk among black females also warrants our attention, rates have typically been higher among males. Depending on the age group, the male-to-female suicide rate ratio has ranged from four-to-one to as high as eight-to-one.

The suicide rate of black and white youngsters, while disturbing, also falls in line with the litany of disparate health outcomes between African-Americans and whites – from higher diabetes and obesity rates among African-Americans to all-around earlier deaths – that are tied to social factors like poverty, nutrition, violence and racism.

The suicide rate among those younger than 13 years is approximately two times higher for black children compared with white children. It’s not normal for children so young to kill themselves. Please keep this in mind, and let’s Save the Children.

Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. 

 Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.