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Suicide is the THIRD leading cause of death for African American teenagers

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for African-American teenagers, ages 15 to 24, but the rate of suicide has decreased in recent years.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, firearms are the most dominant way for African-Americans, regardless of age or gender, to commit suicide—67 percent for males and 40 percent for females ages 15 to 24. African-Americans are also less likely to use drugs during a suicide attempt, and depression is more pronounced with African-Americans.

Warning signs of a suicidal person include threatening to hurt or kill him/herself, talking about hurting or killing him/herself, looking for ways to hurt him/herself by seeking weapons or medication, talking or writing about death, expressing hopelessness and/or experiencing rage, uncontrolled anger and seeking revenge.

But sometimes recognizing someone who is suicidal is not as simple as these red alerts.

“The reality is—and this is the hard part for people to understand—even though suicide is the third leading cause of death in teenagers, it’s actually quite rare when you’re talking about 10 out of 100,000 black teenagers,” said Dr. Carl Bell, co-author of “Suicide and Homicide Among Adolescents” and chapters in “Black Psychiatry” in the 1983 “Mental Health and People of Color” book.

Dr. Bell, M.D., F.A.P.A., F.A.C.P., is the president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council, the Director of the Institute for Juvenile Research in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, and a UIC professor of psychiatry and public health. He was also on the 2002 Institute of Medicine’s Suicide Committee.

“Trying to identify or profile the child that is at risk for suicide is pretty hard to do because you’ve got the 5,000 attempters, you’ve got the 20,000 depressed out of 100,000 so what we came up with was this notion that risk factors are not predictive factors due to protective factors,” Dr. Bell continued.

The protective factors are family, friends and a community that cares about this teenager enough to stop him or her from trying to commit suicide.

In the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, from 1950 to 2005, African-American males ages 15 to 24 suicide rates decreased from 15.1 percent in 1990 (the highest rate) to 11.5 percent in 2005. African-American females ages 15 to 24 suicide rates decreased from 3.8 percent in 1970 (the highest rate) to 1.7 percent in 2005.

African-American teenage suicide is even harder to predict because of the mix of growing pains that intermingle with possible mental conditions.

“The problem with teenage suicide is that teenagers are impulsive because their brains develop from the bottom up and from the inside out,” Dr. Bell said. “So the first part of the brain that’s developed are the fight, flight, freeze parts of their brain so their reactive emotional centers are the first things that are working at a 100 percent. The thinking part of the brain—the judgment, the wisdom—the brake part of the brains don’t develop until you’re 26. So you’ve got teenagers who are all gasoline and no brakes essentially.”

With teenagers being more impulsive, a strong support system is necessary.

“They have governors on the carburetor,” Dr. Bell said. “You’ll only get a certain amount of gas, and that’s the role that the village or community, parents, school, police, adults have is to be that brake system. There are family members that care about you. There are communities that care. There’s having social and emotional skills around self-control.”

However, there’s a stigma in the African-American community that black women are naturally strong and black men are too tough to do something like commit suicide so oftentimes signs of depression or suicidal tendencies may go unnoticed by the village, assuming these teenagers have a “brake system” to watch over them.

And even if the stereotypical rationales are eliminated, loved ones must be willing to get the proper medical care for a teenager who seems to be in trouble. If a teenager shows the warning signs of someone who is suicidal or depressed, it is recommended to seek medical attention regardless of whether the guardian has proper health coverage.

“There are emergency rooms where [doctors] have to see people,” Dr. Bell said. “A lot of people get their medical care from the emergency room. That’s the law. You cannot turn somebody down.”

“To have a depression, you’ve got to be depressed for two solid, full weeks,” Dr. Bell said. “You are crying, losing sleep, you’re losing weight, you can’t think, your thoughts are slowed down, you can’t concentrate, you’re depressed or irritable, you’re having crying spells, you don’t have a sense of humor and you have no hope for the future.”

However, according to Dr. Bell, obstacles in life don’t always lead up to suicide. A person who commits suicide may not do so because of what someone else did to him or her.

“People have this idea that it’s life stressors that causes depression or it’s life stressors that cause people to be suicidal,” Dr. Bell said. “Usually 95 percent of the people who commit suicide are depressed. They have a clinical depression, and it may have nothing to do with their life circumstances at all. There’s another 5 percent who commit suicide because they find themselves trapped so, for example, jail suicide rates are probably 66 or 70 per 100,000 but it’s still very rare.”

Outside of seeking medical attention, parents, guardians and parents are advised to eliminate the religious stigma that suicide is a sin, do not ignore a teenager who is clearly expressing suicidal thoughts or acting as though he or she will commit suicide, ignore stereotypes about how African-Americans don’t commit suicide, and establish relationships with the community to put this person in a positive environment (be it faith-based, work-based or involved in an extracurricular activity).

The numbers for African-American teenagers committing suicide may be low, but one child is one too many.

For more info:

American Association of Suicidology: African-American Suicide Fact Sheet (1993 to 2002)

“Death rates for suicide, by sex, race, Hispanic origin, and age: United States, selected years 1950-2005” (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics)

University of Illinois at Chicago: About Dr. Carl Bell

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