RALEIGH — Destiny Ivey knew something was up as soon as she got the text. Her friend had sent a message with just her mom’s phone number.
“You just kind of know your friends, and you know when something’s wrong,” Ivey said.
Another friend of theirs had been murdered recently, and Ivey’s friend could no longer afford the anti-depressants she needed.
Worried she might try to take her own life, Ivey and her friend’s sister began tracking her location through their phones. They found her in time to get her help.
Ivey, who will be a freshman at N.C. A&T in just a few weeks, said this wasn’t the first time she’d nearly lost a friend to suicide, and new research shows she is right to worry for some of her friends.
According to a new study, suicides among African American teenagers increased 60% for males and 182% for females from 2001 to 2017.
The study, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported over 68,000 black male and nearly 95,000 black female teens made a suicide attempt serious enough to require medical attention in 2017 alone. Most didn’t succeed, but more than 300 did. North Carolina is fourth in the nation for the number of black teens committing suicide, behind Georgia, Texas and Florida.
Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of health sciences at Ball State University who led the study, said the researchers expected to see some increase in suicide rates, as suicide rates have risen country-wide. But Khubchandani was surprised at how dramatic the change was.
”A white thing”
Ivey’s mom, LaTonya Summers, was a counselor in Charlotte before becoming a psychology professor. When training to be a counselor, Summers learned to take talk of suicide very seriously, especially among white men in their 40s with unstable careers or relationships.
“That was the profile, and we knew when that person walked in we needed to give it everything we got,” she said.
But by the mid-1990s, suicide had become the third leading cause of death for black youth 15 to 19 years old. In 2017, black high school students in North Carolina attempted suicide at more than twice the rate of white high school students (11.1% vs. 5.1%), according to the N.C. Child Health Report Card.
“We still believe that’s a white thing, that it doesn’t happen to us,” Summers said. “But these kids are showing us differently, that this is not just a white thing. And we know that anxiety and depression doesn’t discriminate.”
Henry Willis, a Ph.D. candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill who researches mental health among African American youth, is working on an app to help black teens connect with counselors and peers who understand what they’re going through. He said the stigma is compounded by a lack of awareness about mental health.
“Generationally, a lot of African American families just don’t know about mental health and mental health problems,” Willis said. “So it makes it hard when African American youth are experiencing a lot of different new stressors in addition to traditional things like regular discrimination.”
Lack of research
According to Khubchandani’s study, “the vast majority” of research on youth suicide prevention is focused on white students.
It’s impossible to draw an exact cause and effect relationship on suicide, Khubchandani said. A state’s general focus on mental health, child poverty, crime and household dysfunction likely all factor into different states’ suicide rates among African-American teenagers, he said.
And then there is the fact that this rise in suicide rates happened between 2001 and 2017.
Karla Sapp, a counselor in Georgia who helped her community recover from a teen’s suicide, said that immediately makes her think of social media. The pressures teenagers have always faced, such as searching for acceptance or dealing with bullying, don’t end with the school day anymore, she said.
Black teens today are also exposed to more racism through the internet, said Willis, whose research has shown teens who view racially motivated violence online are more likely to report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or depression.
“If you think about the types of videos people may see online or the types of experiences people may have on social media for example, it’s more constant or more pervasive,” Willis said.
As part of his master’s degree, Willis worked in a free mental health clinic. The neighborhoods around the clinic were mostly black and Latino, but Willis never saw people of color volunteering for their studies.
“This made me wonder if these different treatments that we were creating and trying would actually be effective for African Americans,” Willis said. “And it would be hard for us to know that because we weren’t recruiting them to our studies.”
Summers, who started the Black Mental Health Symposium four years ago, helps mental health providers of any race better understand their African American clients. Hundreds of mental health professionals gather in Charlotte every year to learn about interventions and techniques specifically designed for clients of color.
“If it’s hard for an adult person of color to live in America,” Summers said. “Imagine what the weight of it is on the children who might have less resilience or coping skills.”
Sometimes friends have told Ivey it’s even hard for their parents to imagine.
“You can talk to your friends about it, but when it comes to (their) parents, they don’t really take it as seriously as it should be,” Ivey said.
Sometimes, she sends struggling friends to her own mom when their parents don’t hear them.
For all the challenge, Willis is hopeful.
In his research, Willis found a sense of pride in their race can help teens of color build resilience, and his app will also promote those values. He sees people growing more comfortable talking about mental health. And he points to the internet as one of the greatest tools for these conversations.
“We talk a lot about the risk of this generation, with social media and online racial discrimination,” Willis said. “But one of the benefits is that we have more access to other people going through similar things, and I think that helps reduce the loneliness that usually accompanies mental health problems.”