Suicide rates increase in Black communities despite nationwide decrease

by Deon Osborne, Associate Editor
suicide black pandemic

While the entire nation has suffered and endured through a debilitating pandemic, not all groups have suffered equally.

A report from Axios highlighted findings from a researcher from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics. It found the suicide rate had declined in 2020, even as the country’s residents faced mounting health, economic and social crises.

Generally, total suicides in the U.S. declined from a high of 48,344 in 2018 down to 47,511 in 2019, according to the report. It sunk even further to a four-year low of 44,834 in 2020. Though, the report is preliminary.

Yet, even as the nation has witnessed a surprising decrease in rates of suicide across the general population, rates for Black Americans turned drastically in the opposite direction.

Study notes suicide disparities by race

Paul Sasha Nestadt, M.D. is Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Anxiety Disorders Clinic and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

He recently directed a report which analyzed suicide rates among Maryland residents between January and June of 2020.

Shockingly, it found that while suicide rates in general decreased from previous years–in line with the CDC’s preliminary data–suicide rates among Maryland’s Black population increased drastically.

For instance, between March and June of 2020, suicide rates among White residents decreased by 45%, while they increased by 94% for Black residents.

“This is obviously concerning, and it serves as a reminder that when we aggregate all of our data — thinking the population is homogeneous — we miss especially vulnerable populations,” Nestadt said.

The study noted that Black Marylanders had a higher COVID infection and fatality rate. Additionally, it inferred White residents may have had had greater access to social supports and more of an economic cushion, though it concluded further study is needed. The study drew data from Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Black community faces compounding inequities

Nationally, Black Americans, along with Indigenous, Latinx and Pacific Islanders, are more likely to contract COVID and at least twice as likely to die from contracting COVID, based on research from the APM Research Lab.

Yet, many Black families are also twice as likely to have experienced economic hardships during the pandemic on top of these health disparities. Black Americans are more likely to be essential workers, more likely to face a job disruption or loss of income, and Black renters are often disproportionately more likely to be evicted.

These compounding inequities have been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic of racism and police killings, along with depression and anxiety among children in and out of school. 

Oklahoma suicide rates increase across the board

And the data goes beyond one state. Residents in Oklahoma actually experienced a 15-year-high in the suicide rate across the general population, according to an analysis by Oklahoma Watch. It’s a state that regularly ranks in the bottom half of U.S. states for mental health.

The analysis found that Oklahoma’s suicide rate jumped nearly 10% from 2019 to 2020. Additionally, the rate rose 62% from figures published in 2006.

Black Oklahomans fared even worse, with a suicide rate that doubled between 2016 and 2020.

Signs for hope

While officials implemented restrictions meant to keep the COVID pandemic in check, such as lockdowns and school closings, they also had the effect of damaging the financial and mental health of many families, with Black Americans and other People of Color facing a disproportionate share of the harming effects.

Nevertheless, signs for hope have appeared in the form of new approaches to addressing mental health challenges. More school districts are expanding counselors and training teachers in mental health awareness and suicide prevention, thanks to funding from the CARES Act. 

Moreover, cities are beginning to respond to the alarming rate of police killings by experimenting with and expanding resources for non-violent responses to mental health calls. 

In March, the Biden Administration announced it would deliver $2.5 billion in federal aid to states and territories to address the nation’s mental health and addiction crisis.

Opening up about mental health struggles, finding resources

Meanwhile, community leaders and even celebrities are shattering any remaining remnants of a stigma against opening up about mental health struggles. Most recently, rapper Lil Wayne opened up about a suicide attempt he made when he was 12 in an episode of “Uncomfortable Conversations with Emmanuel Acho”.

Detailing how he grew up in New Orleans without a father and with a strict mother, his struggles came to a head when his mom banned him from rapping–the one thing 10-year-old Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. wanted more than anything. 

“I couldn’t have what I wanted, what I dreamed of, what I desired, and that was to rap,” he recalled feeling at the time. “I was willing to die for it,” the rapper said, explaining he had no one to vent to at home or at school.

He eventually shot himself in the chest, but survived. He said he and his mother grew closer after the incident, and he wanted to open up about his story to help others going through mental health struggles.

“What I wish they knew is that it’s real,” he said. “That it’s real. There is no bar to measure how real. It’s real.”

To access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-8255.

For more resources on how to help prevent suicides, click here.

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