Conference Coverage

Ringing the alarm about black youth suicide



A “growing and disturbing” increase in suicidal behavior among black youth has quietly been underway in the United States during the past several decades, even while rates in white and Latino youth have declined, Michael A. Lindsey, PhD, MSW, MPH, declared at the virtual annual meeting of the American Association of Suicidology.

Until recently this trend remained below the radar of public awareness. That’s changing. Dr. Lindsey was coauthor of a December 2019 report to Congress prepared in collaboration with the Congressional Black Caucus entitled, “Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide In America.” Release of the report was accompanied by submission of an omnibus bill aimed at addressing the issue comprehensively, including what Dr. Lindsey considers to be the single most important policy imperative: providing federal resources to support more and better school mental health services proportionate to student needs.

“Black youth, relative to white youth, do not receive treatment for depression, which may be a precursor issue. They’re often disconnected from mental health therapy. This is perhaps a reason why we’re seeing this uptick in suicide expression among black youth,” according to Dr. Lindsey, executive director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research and professor of poverty studies at New York University.

Investigators at Ohio State University analyzed youth suicide data for the years 2001-2015 obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They determined that black children aged 5-12 years had an 82% higher incidence of completed suicide than white children (JAMA Pediatr. 2018 Jul 1;172[7]:697-9).

This report was followed by a study of trends in suicidal behaviors among U.S. high school students during 1991-2017. The study, led by Dr. Lindsey, used data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey covering the years 1991-2017 to document an overall 19% prevalence of thoughts about suicide, while 15% of high school students had a suicide plan. During the study years there was a 73% increase in suicide attempts among black adolescents, while rates in white and Latino teens fell by 7.5% and 11.4%, respectively (Pediatrics. 2019 Nov;144[5]:e20191187).

Dr. Lindsey cited multiple reasons for undertreatment of depression in black youth. The lack of adequate mental health services in many schools figures prominently. As a result of this situation, mental health problems in black youth are often misinterpreted as conduct problems, leading to well-documented overuse of school suspensions and expulsions.

“We tend to oversuspend and expel black kids from school for problems that are treatable. This becomes a major, major issue in the pathway from schools to prisons,” he said.

Another factor in underutilization of mental health services by black youth is the stigma involved. Many black families see mental health therapy as irrelevant. Dr. Lindsey has received grant support from the National Institute of Mental Health for development of engagement interventions that focus on stigma reduction and enhancing family support for mental health therapy in black youth. He has found that, once those barriers are lowered, therapies seem to be as effective in black youth as in other populations, despite the cultural differences.

Yet another potential explanation for the racial disparity in pediatric suicide might be that suicide may, in some cases, be more of an impulsive behavior in black youth. Dr. Lindsey presented data from a soon-to-be-published analysis of Youth Risk Behavior Survey data on nearly 5,000 adolescents with suicidal thoughts, plans, and/or attempts within the previous 12 months. About 23% had suicidal thoughts only, 37% had suicidal thoughts and a plan, another 37% had thoughts, plans, and suicide attempts, and 3% had attempts without thoughts or a plan.

Black youth were 3.7 times more likely than white youth to have attempted suicide in the absence of background suicidal thoughts and 3.3 times more likely to have attempted suicide without having suicidal thoughts and plans.

He and his coinvestigators identified a similar pattern of suicide as an impulsive behavior in youths of all races with a history of sexual assault. They were 4.2 times more likely to have attempted suicide without prior suicidal thoughts than individuals without such a history and 3.9 times more likely to have attempted suicide without thinking about it or having a plan.

“This has implications for screening and prevention; warning signs may not be present,” he said.

Dr. Lindsey reported having no financial conflicts regarding his presentation.

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