What’s Behind the Rise in Self-Reported Suicide Attempts among Black Teens?

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By Michael A. Lindsey, PhD, MSW, MPH, Executive Director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policyand Research at New York University

Amid all the recent headlines about suicidal behavior among young people is an alarming trend that is in danger of being overlooked: a rise in self-reported suicide attempts among Black teenagers over the past generation. This was among the findings of our national study published in the November 2019 issue of Pediatrics. Self-reported attempts rose in Black teenagers ages 12-18, even as they fell or saw no significant trend in white, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native teenagers.

In fact, the data that the study was based on reveals that attempts in Black teens rose an alarming 73 percent during that time period. This is while attempts fell 7.5 percent in White adolescents.Whatever is driving overall teen suicide attempt self-reports down has clearly missed Black teenagers. We suspect this relates to the fact that Black youth access mental health treatment less often than youth in other groups. At play may be greater rates of poverty and adverse childhood experiences; implicit racial bias; and the role of stigma in acknowledging mental health problems.

Suicidality can stem from untreated depression, yet our research shows that engagement in depression treatments are lower for Black adolescents than for White teens. The Making Connections Intervention, which NYU McSilver researchers are studying under a research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, is devised to address such barriers to engagement, in youth, as well as their caregivers. As well, we advocate for more mental health service providers in schools, proportionate to the student population. Too many schools in under-resourced communities of color have too few service providers to care for students. Our children deserve better.

About Michael Lindsey

Dr. Lindsey is a child and adolescent mental health services researcher, and is particularly interested in the prohibitive factors that lead to unmet mental health need among vulnerable youth with serious psychiatric illnesses, including depression. He became Executive Director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research and Constance and Martin Silver Professor of Poverty Studies at NYU Silver School of Social Work in September 2016. Dr. Lindsey was previously an Associate Professor at NYU Silver.

Prior to joining NYU Silver in 2014, Dr. Lindsey was an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and concurrently a Faculty Affiliate at the University of Maryland Department of Psychiatry’s Center for School Mental Health.

Dr. Lindsey holds a PhD in social work and MPH from the University of Pittsburgh; an MSW from Howard University; and a BA in sociology from Morehouse College. He also completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in public health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University.

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