Each time news of a prominent Black person’s suicide hits the news, the reverberations echo through the community, hard. The recent death of Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss, who ended his life in December 2022, drew attention to the alarming reality that, once considered extremely rare, suicide in the Black community is rising. Suicidal ideation – thoughts of taking one’s own life – and attempts, are becoming even more common.
Among the many health disparities Black people in America face compared to their white counterparts – at higher risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke, asthma, obesity, lack of access to mental healthcare services, medical care and insurance, healthy food, and higher mortality rates for nearly all major diseases including maternal and infant mortality – the risk of suicide is reportedly lower but rising rapidly. It hits home, literally, and leaves a trail of devastation in its wake.
“David had just left from visiting our 12-year-old daughter when he went home, prayed with his mother, and when she turned her back, shot himself in the chest,” said Renay Warden* of her ex-husband’s suicide just before the pandemic lockdowns. “When I saw him last, I could tell he was a little down, but nothing that raised any red flags. He took our daughter out to dinner and hugged her goodbye like he always did.”
After years of counseling and grief therapy, she still tears up when she talks about it. The pain has settled deep and is now a part of her and her daughter. “For the longest time, I blamed myself. I should have seen something. My daughter blamed herself. Maybe he wasn’t proud of her or didn’t want her. Intellectually, we know it’s not true, but you struggle.”
According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, as of 2020, the latest year for which they posted data, the age-adjusted suicide rate for Black populations in 2020 was 7.7 per 100,000, under half the overall U.S. suicide rate of 13.5 per 100,000. But dig a little deeper, and the numbers tell a more ominous and familiar story.
Young Black teens and men are at peak suicide risk, rates decline through the elder years. Whereas, that number is reversed in the wider population where suicide peaks between the ages of 45 to 54, decline until the mid-70s and begin to rise. Young Black men commit suicide at more than three times the rate of Black women. But, according to SPRC, compared to the overall U.S. population, a higher percentage of Black youth have attempted suicide in the past year and Black youth reporting a suicide attempt that required treatment was about equal to the overall U.S. population.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says that the suicide rate among Black youth has “risen faster than in any other racial/ethnic group in the past two decades, with suicide rates in Black males 10 to19 years old increasing by 60%. Early adolescent Black youth are twice as likely to die by suicide as compared to their white counterparts.”
To complicate matters, the number of suicides and suicide attempts in Black communities is very likely underrepresented in the data. The coroners and medical examiners who are responsible for listing the official cause of death may be mislabeling drug deaths as overdoses unless there is clear evidence to support recognizing a suicide. Because Black people are less likely to have access to mental health services and are less likely to leave suicide notes, many likely suicides are labeled as drug overdoses.
“I would conservatively estimate that 15% of drug overdoses labeled undetermined are likely suicides,” said Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The article goes on to report Centers for Disease Control data showing that, “if 15% of the 15,907 Black undetermined overdose deaths were misclassified suicides, their estimated suicide rate for Black Americans would be 12.5 per 100,000 people versus the official rate of 7.5 per 100,000 – a 67% higher rate than previous calculations.”
The deaths of despair among white Americans without degrees that have been widely reported in the news may be impacting the Black, Brown and Native communities as overall drug overdose death rates rise. According to the CDC, “Black people 15 to24 years old experienced the largest rate increase (86%) compared with changes seen in other age/race groups during 2019–2020.”
Alarming data aside, the wrenching loss a family and community experiences when someone decides to end their life can leave one feeling helpless. But there are ways to help. Simply reaching out and checking in with the people in your circle, especially young men, can make a huge difference.
Asking whether someone ever thinks about suicide may seem awkward at first, but it can open the door to a real conversation about what is going on in their lives. No one expects you to be a therapist if that’s not your training, but once someone reveals that they are having thoughts of suicide, you can help connect them to resources that can be a lifeline.
Renay Warden and her daughter have channeled their grief into positive action by volunteering to organize suicide awareness walks and getting training and becoming peer counselors. “But there are still dark days,” Warden says. “And too many everyday people struggling to get the help that they need.”
The suicide prevention lifeline number is 988.