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Congresswoman shares thoughts on Black youth suicide

Research about suicidal behaviors has raised questions about whether the path from suicidal thoughts to attempts is well understood in Black youth.

Editor's note: This story contains data about death by suicide involving children. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255.

Over the last several years, data has suggested an alarming increase in suicide rates for Black youth in America. When experts looked closer, they found Black children, in particular those younger than 13, had suicide death rates twice as high as their white peers.

This specific data point, along with new information surfacing about the nationwide issue, prompted U.S. Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12) and other experts to dig into what was happening.

"I started seeing these series of posts for like a couple of weeks where they were talking about young Black boys in particular -- attempting, thinking about it and executing on suicide. I'm like, what's going on here?" she told 11Alive during an interview.

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Emergency Task Force, which includes Watson Coleman, released a report titled "Ring the Alarm: the Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America" in Dec. 2019.

"It was incomprehensible to me that we were looking at such young people. I couldn't understand how you could be 6, 7, 8, 9 and think that committing suicide - ending your life - is an option," Watson Coleman said.

Credit: WXIA
U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman

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The report outlines mental health trends among Black youth and includes recommended policies that could help address it in the future. 

"Let us communicate the urgency around this issue by not just making it a task force. Let's make it an emergency task force, which will signal people - pay attention, something's happening here," she added. 

About 37% of Black students in the United States reported being bullied based on race, English proficiency, or disability, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Another study suggested Black youth may experience an average of five or more racial discrimination experiences today. 

The Ring The Alarm report also highlighted that Black children and teens in America are also less likely to receive care for depression - a major risk factor for suicide. 

"How do we get people to recognize early on what's happening with these young kids - that they would be thinking in that direction - and how do we correct that course?" Watson Coleman asked. 

Below are some findings within the emergency task force report: 

  • Suicide death rate among Black youth is increasing faster than any other racial/ethnic group.
  • Black youth under 13 years old are twice as likely to die by suicide compared to their white peers. 
  • Self-reported suicide attempts increased by 73% for Black adolescents over the last 25 years. 

The report also indicated how the rise in Black youth suicide deaths challenges public perception that this issue isn't experienced by Black children in America. 

"Additional research about suicidal behaviors has raised questions about whether the path from suicidal thoughts to attempts is well understood in Black youth, and whether we have the knowledge and tools to intervene before the worst happens," the report outlines. 

As for Watson Coleman, the most shocking aspect of their research was the ages of young Black children experiencing thoughts of suicide. 

"I just couldn't wrap my brain around it, and I think also what's troubling to me was to listen to other young people -- and what they were experiencing -- and how they even considered ending their lives as an option," she said. 

Read the full report and research here.

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