Virus, racism com­pound Black sui­cide wor­ries

Enterprise-Record (Chico) - - FRONT PAGE - By Sophia Tareen

Men­tal health ad­vo­cates are call­ing for more spe­cial­ized fed­eral at­ten­tion to sui­cide rate among Blacks.

CHICAGO » Jas­min Pierre was 18 when she tried to end her life, over­dos­ing on what­ever pills she could find. Di­ag­nosed with de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, she sur­vived two more at­tempts at sui­cide, which felt like the only way to stop her pain.

Years of ther­apy brought progress, but the 31-year-old Black wo­man’s jour­ney is now com­pli­cated by a com­bi­na­tion of stres­sors hitting si­mul­ta­ne­ously: iso­la­tion dur­ing the pan­demic, a short­age of men­tal health care providers and racial trauma in­flicted by re­peated po­lice killings of Black peo­ple.

“Black peo­ple who al­ready go through men­tal health is­sues, we’re even more trig­gered,” said Pierre, who lives in New Or­leans. “I don’t think my men­tal health is­sues have ever, ever been this bad be­fore.”

Health ex­perts have warned of a loom­ing men­tal health cri­sis linked to the coro­n­avirus out­break, and the fed­eral govern­ment rolled out a broad anti-sui­cide campaign. But doc­tors and re­searchers say the is­sues re­ver­ber­ate deeper among Black peo­ple, who’ve seen ris­ing youth sui­cide at­tempts and suf­fered dis­pro­por­tion­ately dur­ing the pan­demic.

Men­tal health ad­vo­cates are call­ing for more spe­cial­ized fed­eral at­ten­tion on Black sui­cides, in­clud­ing re­search fund­ing. Coun­selors fo­cus­ing on Black trauma are of­fer­ing free help. And Black churches are find­ing new ways to ad­dress sui­cide as so­cial dis­tanc­ing has eroded how peo­ple con­nect.

“There has been a lot of com­plex grief and loss re­lated to death, re­lated to loss of jobs and loss of in­come,” said Sean Joe, an ex­pert on Black sui­cides at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St. Louis. “There’s a lot of hurt and pain in Amer­ica go­ing on right now, and you only are get­ting a sense of depth in the months ahead.”

Sui­cides over­all have in­creased. Roughly 48,000 peo­ple in the U.S. died by sui­cide in 2018, with the rate in­creas­ing 35% since 1999, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. Sui­cide is the 10th lead­ing cause of death among all ages. For ages 10 to 19, it’s sec­ond af­ter ac­ci­dents.

The rates of sui­cides and sui­cide at­tempts for Black adults have trailed white and Na­tive Amer­i­can adults. But newer re­search shows an alarm­ing rise in Black young peo­ple try­ing to take their own lives.

Sui­cide at­tempts rose 73% be­tween 1991 and 2017 among Black high school stu­dents while sui­ci­dal thoughts and plans for sui­cide fell for all teens, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in Novem­ber in the jour­nal Pe­di­atrics. The find­ings, in­clud­ing trou­bling sui­cide trends among Black chil­dren, prompted the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus to is­sue a re­port in De­cem­ber deem­ing the sit­u­a­tion a cri­sis.

Ex­perts say the rea­sons are a com­plex mix re­quir­ing more study.

Sui­cide risk fac­tors in­clude a di­ag­no­sis like de­pres­sion or trauma or hav­ing a par­ent who died by sui­cide. Many fac­tors are am­pli­fied for Black fam­i­lies, who of­ten face higher poverty rates, dis­pro­por­tion­ate ex­po­sure to vi­o­lence and less ac­cess to med­i­cal care.

The pan­demic has height­ened the dis­par­i­ties.

Black peo­ple are dy­ing from COVID-19 at higher rates, leav­ing them to grieve more in iso­la­tion with restric­tions on fu­ner­als and gath­er­ings. Added to the mix is a na­tional reck­on­ing with racism af­ter Ge­orge Floyd’s killing.

“Deal­ing with racism and stereo­types and all the in­equity that we have to face, it’s ban­daged up,” said Arielle Shef­tall, an au­thor of the Pe­di­atrics study. “It feels like the ban­dage is ripped off and ev­ery­body is look­ing at it and star­ing at it, and we are bleed­ing pro­fusely.”

Part of the prob­lem is the study of sui­cide re­mains largely white, with lit­tle race re­search. There’s also been a mis­con­cep­tion of sui­cide as only a “white prob­lem.”

Michi­gan psy­chol­o­gist Al­ton Kirk was among the first to study Black sui­cides in the 1970s, out­lined in his 2009 book, “Black Sui­cide: The Tragic Re­al­ity of Amer­ica’s Dead­li­est Se­cret.”

“When I first started, a lot of Black peo­ple were in de­nial about sui­cide,” he said. “We had suf­fered enough. We sur­vived slav­ery and seg­re­ga­tion and all this other stuff. They al­most saw it as be­ing a weak­ness.”

While many at­ti­tudes have changed, ob­sta­cles to health care per­sist.

For one, there aren’t enough men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als. Also, treat­ment has tra­di­tion­ally been based on white ex­pe­ri­ences, po­ten­tially leav­ing some clin­i­cians un­pre­pared.

Each time there’s a pub­li­cized episode of po­lice bru­tal­ity against Black peo­ple, calls to the Trevor Project’s sui­cide-pre­ven­tion lines spike im­me­di­ately. The or­ga­ni­za­tion fo­cuses on LGBTQ youth, in­clud­ing ad­dress­ing racial dis­par­i­ties.

“You’re al­ready start­ing at a dif­fer­ent point be­cause you spent your life fight­ing back racism,” said Tia Dole, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s chief clin­i­cal op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer. “Peo­ple are walk­ing around with a half-filled tank of emo­tional re­sources be­cause of their iden­tity.”

For sui­cide at­tempt sur­vivors, nav­i­gat­ing the pan­demic means more un­cer­tainty.

Ki­auna Pat­ter­son, who grad­u­ated from Penn­syl­va­nia’s Ed­in­boro Univer­sity this year, tried to end her life in 2018 as she felt pres­sure from school and work­ing three jobs to help sup­port fam­ily.

Since los­ing univer­sity health care, she med­i­tates daily and fo­cuses on her goal of be­com­ing a doula.

“You don’t re­ally know what’s go­ing on or what’s go­ing to hap­pen,” she said. “You’re tak­ing each day, just one at a time, to try and grasp some type of con­trol or calm­ness.”


Jas­min Pierre is seen in New Or­leans on Thurs­day. Pierre cre­ated The Safe Place, a free Black-ori­ented men­tal health app that’s seen more signups dur­ing the pan­demic.

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