Rate of Black teen suicides by firearm surpasses that of white peers

For the first time ever, Black teens are using firearms to die by suicide at rates greater than white peers.

The new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also shows gun suicide rates across all groups are the highest they’ve been since the mid-1990s.

The preliminary findings were analyzed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

In Philadelphia and other major cities grappling with unprecedented levels of gun violence, experts say the combination of frequent shootings, accessible firearms, and a sense of hopelessness exacerbated by social media likely contribute to the suicide increase among Black teens.

“Unless we’re addressing all forms of violence and how that traumatizes Black youth … we’ll probably continue to see an uptick,” said Joseph Richardson, a professor of African American studies at the University of Maryland. “Particularly because the gun seems to be the easiest solution now to everything.”

Young people who live in areas where gun violence is common are more likely to visit the emergency room for psychiatric emergencies such as depression, PTSD, and ingestion of harmful substances than those who do not, according to a 2021 study from the University of Pennsylvania. Those visits are most common for children residing within two to three blocks of where a shooting occurred.

People aged 18 and under make up 11% of Philadelphia’s 2023 homicide victims, up from 10% in 2022 according to data from the Office of the Controller.

Aliyah Kent, an 18-year-old who grew up in Germantown and graduated high school this year, said she believes homicide and suicide are definitely related.

“With the violence, it could potentially scare people and scare teenagers to think that ’I could be living today and not living tomorrow,’” she said. “It’s always a thought that’s on teenagers’ minds, and that could correlate with suicide.”

Losing connections

Qayim Powe-Cobb said his life was “great” until March 2020, when his dad was fatally shot down the street from his house. He was in eighth grade.

“It changed my personality,” he said. “Now I knew sadness and depression and all that was a real thing.”

That month marked the start of COVID-19 lockdown, and he struggled to focus on school while processing his feelings. He said his mom tried to support him after his dad’s death, but sometimes he would lash out.

“My sadness turns to anger, that’s why I distance myself from other people,” he said. “It changed me, it made me hurt her feelings a couple times. It was a long two years until things got normal.”

Now when he feels sad he tries to find somewhere to be alone, where he can listen to music or sleep.

Some teens may not want to talk to their parents about mental health issues, or may not have parents in the home at all.

And due to stigma around suicide in some Black families, loved ones may miss red flags or not know how to refer children to help, said Alfiee Breland-Noble, a psychologist who runs a national mental health nonprofit called the Aakoma Project.

“There’s this piece of ‘that’s not going to happen to my child, we don’t do that in the Black community, Black folks don’t die by suicide, my kid is not struggling with depression,’” she said.

Other caring mentors in a child’s life can help them understand that “they are deserving of help, even if the adults in their lives don’t want to get help for themselves,” she said.

The nonprofit’s website has information for families on generational trauma, social media and mental health, and how depression presents differently between adolescents of different races.

“If a young person is angry, that’s not always impulse control or anger management that’s needed — sometimes there’s an underlying sadness and depression,” she said. “And so what young people feel is acceptable is being angry because it pushes people away.”

Breland-Noble said teens who feel negatively about their own futures may be “putting themselves in harm’s way and knowing they might get killed.”

“That’s all they see is that people don’t live past 25,” she said. “There’s something about the environment that sort of feeds that. We can’t dismiss the impact of systemic discrimination and racism.”

Youth advocates in Philadelphia say job programs and educational opportunities can give teens hope and help them stay focused on their goals.

Kaliek Hayes mentors young men aged 18-24 at the Youth Adolescent Outreach Community Awareness Program, including Powe-Cobb. He said giving them a goal to focus on and encouraging them to stay on track can keep them from making a drastic decision.

“It’s like tug of war — you have this feeling pulling you one way and all this support pulling the other way,” Hayes said. “We just want to have as many people as possible pulling on the rope.”

Creating more access

Though homicides are often concentrated in specific neighborhoods, those areas don’t see the type of support Sandy Hook and Parkland did following active shooter situations, Joseph Richardson said.

“[We’re] not seeing those communities being inundated with mental health resources and mental health workers,” he said. “We’ve almost rendered Black youth invisible.”

The city of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual DisAbility Services offers the Engaging Males of Color initiative, which just produced a documentary about the mental health impacts of gun violence.

The department also runs the Network of Neighbors program, which trains residents to respond to stress, trauma, loss, and violence in their own communities. Participants may receive psychological first aid training, and may be asked to respond door-to-door or in neighborhood gathering spaces.

Suicide in the U.S. has historically been most prevalent among older, white men. That group still has the highest rates, but they’ve been relatively stable for the last decade. Meanwhile, rates among people of color aged 10-19 have more than doubled during the same time period according to an analysis of CDC data from The Trace.

The first step to helping Black teens is making Black therapists more available, said Farida Boyer, executive director of Philadelphia nonprofit Black Brain Campaign.

“Because of racism, they don’t feel comfortable with providing all the information to somebody who does not look like them,” Breland-Noble. “It will help if they can find somebody who walks like them, talks like them.”

Only 4% of U.S. therapists are Black, according to a 2020 report from the American Psychological Association.

Deshawnda Williams, a social worker who advocates for more mental health resources in Philadelphia, said there isn’t a dedicated local organization for suicide prevention for youth of color.

“I’ve never seen that,” she said. “The rate is higher now for Black teens committing suicide — so where are you?”

Multiple Philadelphia nonprofit groups create peer-to-peer healing circles for teens and offer mental health resources in schools, recreation centers, and other community spaces.

From The Philadelphia Tribune