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Let’s hear it for the boys – seriously – as Black male youth suicide rates soar

By Vernon A. Williams

Growing up can be rough. It’s not supposed to be fatal. Arguably worse than the most tragic accident, catastrophic illness, crippling injury or brutal homicide is the pain and devastation that result from children committing suicide.

For the longest time, African Americans pretended, or perhaps genuinely believed, that this was not a problem in their homes or neighborhoods. Well, the lie has been exposed with a vengeance recently.

Various studies reveal that Black children ages 5-12 were twice as likely to kill themselves as their white peers. Among those 13 to 17, the likelihood was 50 percent higher for African Americans. The Black male female ratio is a stark 5 to 1. That disturbing reality compels us to promote one of the most unpleasant conversations imaginable.

I am deeply saddened when children of any race, ethnicity, nationality or faith suffer. Their pain strains every fiber of our humanity.

The focus on Black boys is to isolate the demographic for which the problem is demonstratively worse, not to minimize any others suffering this devastating fate.

Just as I refuse to consider the race or ethnicity of a child in my natural sense of compassion, it is my prayer that whites refuse to divorce themselves from this tragic circumstance simply because those involved are African-American. Whatever empathy or indignation resulting from this societal ill, should be felt and expressed by all.

Tragically, teens can be vulnerable to suicide as they navigate the emotional pitfalls of growing up and Black teens might be the most vulnerable of all. The study also found that the methods Black teens used most often in suicide attempts — firearms and strangulation — are among the most lethal.

The American Psychological Association (APA) Working Group on Health Disparities in Boys and Men recently released a report on Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic and Sexual Minority Boys and Men, which includes a review of research which may help to explain this increase in suicide in Black boys.

Recent national conversations on suicide have gone past the usual “reach out if you need help” messages, to encouraging friends and family to reach out to individuals who they think might be suicidal or struggling with anxiety or depression. This is undoubtedly important, but to do this, people need to know what depression looks like.

According to the APA report, even professional health care providers have trouble detecting depression among racial/ethnic minority patients. Men from these groups are diagnosed with depression less often than non-Hispanic white males, and depression may also present itself differently in males as irritability, anger, and discouragement rather than hopelessness and helplessness.

The unique way that depression presents itself in males combined with the underdiagnoses of men of color with depression may intersect to cause further disparities for Black boys. The problem is likely perpetuated by the unwillingness of society to address, much less change, the inequities in treatment of the Black male in America.

Racist perceptions contribute. The APA report discusses how Black boys are more likely to be viewed as older, less innocent, and more culpable than others. Biased beliefs lead to harsher interventions in school starting as early as pre-kindergarten.

In fact, Black boys are over four times more likely to be suspended from school than White students.

These disparities combined with a lack of awareness about what depression looks like in men and boys of color may lead to social reprimand, school suspensions, and expulsion rather than to the mental health care that they need.

Young men of color are also more likely to be caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline. Black male high school students are also more likely to miss school due to feeling unsafe in their classroom environment or community as well as the threat of a physical fight in or outside the school setting. Those on the outside looking in must practice more empathy.

Reject the temptation to feel less threatened if you are not male, African American or closely related to either. If Black boys think nothing of their own lives, they will likely value yours less – no matter who you are. This state of mind is a danger both to themselves and others.

No one escapes the grim outcomes of disenfranchisement. It can quickly become anyone’s problem.

What can we do? Look out for signs of trouble and get close to Black male youths and their circumstances. Mentor and provide unsolicited guidance. Insist that those who run our society expend more than lip-service on issues of mental health. Be more proactive in seeking remedies for some societal ills that exacerbate alienation, anger, and despair. And lastly, always pray. Never abandon God in our plight.

Don’t vote for anyone in 2020 whose platform does not conspicuously address this issue.

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].

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