5 Reasons Suicide Is on the Rise in the Black Community, According to a Psychiatrist
Suicide rates are climbing in Black communities around the United States. Psychiatrist Patrice Harris, MD, a former president of the American Medical Association, discusses what factors may be driving this increase.
Two devastating losses to suicide in the Black community marked the beginning of 2022: the deaths of attorney, former Miss USA, activist, and entertainment news correspondent Cheslie Kryst, and of up-and-coming DJ and songwriter Ian King Jr., who was also the son of Academy Award–winning actress Regina King.
The deaths of Kryst and King sent shock waves through the Black community and among fans at large. Both were young: Kryst was 30, and King had turned 26 just days before taking his life. Both were successful and appeared to have the world at their fingertips.
Sadly, Kryst and King are not alone. Their deaths have shed light on an ongoing and alarming issue: increasing rates of suicide among Black Americans. Between 2014 and 2019, rates of suicide among Black people in the United States increased by 30 percent, according to data published in May 2021 in JAMA Network Open.
A report published in November 2021 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that although the overall rate of suicide in the United States decreased by 3 percent in 2020, the rate of suicide actually increased among many men of color, including Black men, during this time. Between 2011 and 2020, the suicide rate among Black men was 3 times that of Black women, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center reports.
Equally alarming, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health found that suicide was the second leading cause of death among Black people ages 15 to 24 in 2019. And according to a report released in December 2019 by the Congressional Black Caucus’s Emergency Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, suicide is also the second leading cause of death for Black youths ages 10 to 19.
What’s Driving the Rise in Suicides Among Black Americans?
Patrice Harris, MD, Everyday Health’s chief health and medical editor and the first Black woman to be elected president of the American Medical Association, discusses five factors likely contributing to this increase, and what could help change this trajectory.
1. Social Media Ramps Up Pressure to Fit In
Social media is undeniably pervasive and has made society incredibly voyeuristic, says Dr. Harris, as it’s given people nearly unlimited access to view others’ lives online. This can make people feel pressured to conform to an ideal, and pressure associated with social media is one potential cause of increased suicides among Black people, Harris says.
“Unfortunately, we've seen increased suicide numbers in Black people — particularly in youth — over the last decade,” she says. “Although there is no one causal factor for this, it is important to remember that we live in an age where most people are connected to social media, which comes with the pressure to create an image like we’re living perfect lives. This is especially true for our young people who might feel extreme pressure to live a certain kind of life or compete with their peers' appearance.” According to Harris, this kind of pressure can negatively affect one’s sense of self-worth, identity, and sense of belonging, especially among young people.
Harris says that cyberbullying, which has become increasingly common among preteens and teens because of social media, is likely another contributing factor for the increased number of suicides in Black communities around the country. A recent?study, published in September 2021 in The Journal of Early Adolescence, found that cyberbullying is a common form of bullying experienced by Black adolescents.
Another?study, published in 2020 in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, revealed that being a victim of cyberbullying was associated with increased suicidal ideation among both Black and white study participants, with texting and social media being the most common places in which cyberbullying occurred.
2. Mental Health Stigma Impedes Black People From Seeking Help
Harris says that stigma surrounding mental health issues and seeking help from mental health professionals has also played a role in rising suicide rates among Black people.
“A person might think, ‘I'm having these issues, but I will keep them to myself because if I seek help, I will be seen as crazy or weak,’” says Harris. “There's a stigma [in the Black community] that if you have a mental disorder, it's a sign of a character flaw or weakness instead of what it truly is: a diagnosis that can be treated and managed.”
This stigma has had myriad consequences for Black communities, including preventing many Black people from seeking the help they need, causing them to repress their symptoms instead. It has also perpetuated the false notion that Black people do not experience mental illness or suicide.
“We create and present these images for people to feel that they have to live up to,” adds Harris. For example, young Black girls often hear the message of the strong Black woman, a persona that promotes expectations of Black women to show tireless strength and prioritize others’ needs before their own, which in turn discourages them from practicing self-care and showing vulnerability to loved ones. “So some may feel that they cannot ask for help — they have to be all things to all people,” Harris says. “For young Black boys, they often hear the message that if they seek help, they are weak.”
3. Treatment Is Often Less Accessible to Black People
Harris says untreated mental illness is another cause of increased suicide rates among Black people. In addition to stigma, there are many reasons that Black people don’t get the help they need for mental health issues, including lack of access to care.
“When we are talking about suicide and mental health overall, there are access problems we must consider,” Harris says, including lack of access to quality medical insurance and education about how to locate a local mental health provider. And factors such as poverty, lack of medical insurance, and lack of culturally conscious medical providers only make matters worse.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 2005 U.S. Census Bureau data showed that Black people were more than 7 times more likely to live in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and little to no access to mental health care compared with white people, despite having the same risk of mental illness.
Furthermore, the APA reports, almost 25 percent of Black Americans are uninsured and are more likely to see emergency or primary care health practitioners for mental health-related concerns, even though these professionals are not as equipped to treat mental and behavioral health issues as mental health professionals.
On top of this, there is a lack of representation among mental health professionals, which makes it difficult for Black people to find culturally competent mental health care, or healthcare that meets a patient’s cultural, social, and language-related needs. Only 2 percent of psychiatrists and 4 percent of psychologists in the United States are Black, according to the American Psychiatric Association and American Psychological Association.
4. Black People Continually Face Racism and Discrimination
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked nationwide protests against racism in the United States, which Black people have faced for centuries. For many Black Americans, Harris says, Floyd’s murder was a tipping point for increased rates of anxiety and depression related to racism.
“Certainly, George Floyd’s death added to the extreme anxiety that many Black people were already experiencing along with the everyday effects of living with discrimination and racism, and the resulting trauma from those experiences,” Harris says.
Floyd’s death is a sobering example of a type of racism called structural racism: racism that pervades public policies, institutions, housing, education, and the justice system, among other areas. Black Americans are at a greater risk of being targeted, profiled, and arrested by law enforcement for minor offenses, and the rate of incarceration of Black people is 6 times that of white people, states the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Structural racism has also caused Black people to be significantly more likely to experience poverty and homelessness. Despite the fact that Black Americans comprise only 13 percent of the U.S. population, the Alliance reports that 39 percent of homeless people — and more than 50 percent of homeless families with children — are Black. One root cause of these disparities was a practice called redlining: systemic housing discrimination supported by the U.S. government just a few decades ago that discouraged investments such as business and mortgage loans in Black and brown neighborhoods, according to the Alliance.
All of these different types of racism and discrimination have had a significant negative impact on mental health, causing stress and trauma to Black people on the receiving end, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI). And some mental health care providers can even be part of the problem: Racist and discriminatory views, whether implicit (unconscious) or outright, can lead providers to “categorize mental illness in the Black community as [someone] having disruptive behaviors rather than someone who is having a health problem and needs help,” says Harris. Such bias, lack of culturally appropriate training among medical providers, and lack of access to mental health treatment in general can all make these mental health problems worse.
5. Many Black People Are Frequently Exposed to Violence
Although not all Black people live in impoverished or physically dangerous environments caused by social issues such as structural racism, research suggests that Black people experience disproportionately high rates of exposure to violence compared with white people, according to Mental Health America.
Like racism, continued exposure to violence may factor into increasing suicide rates among Black people. “Witnessing violence and living in communities with increased numbers of violent crimes is another aspect of trauma that may lead to increasing suicide rates among Black people,” says Harris.
Ample research has shown the detrimental effects of violence and accumulative trauma. For example, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) states that exposure to violence can negatively affect a child’s development psychologically, emotionally, and physically.
Perhaps even more alarming, children who are exposed to violence are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, experience school-related difficulties, develop depression or other mental health issues, behave aggressively, and commit crimes as adults than those who aren’t exposed to violence, the NIJ reports.
The Bottom Line
The increasing number of suicides among Black people is likely multifactorial, and additional research is needed to pinpoint exactly what’s driving these rates, says Harris. The research we do have indicates that harmful effects connected to social media use, exposure to racism, mental health stigma, and exposure to violence and accumulative trauma have all likely played a role.
According to Harris, key steps to reducing these rates include reframing how mental health issues are viewed and discussed in Black communities, combatting potential bias among mental health providers, and addressing mental health stigma among Black people.
Harris stresses that combatting mental health issues in the Black community needs to be a collective effort among people with mental health issues, their loved ones, and medical professionals, and needs to involve dismantling the racist systems that cause many of these mental health issues in the first place.