The time is now to reinvigorate the call for a response to the national crisis of black teen suicide over the past decade, becoming the second leading cause of death for 10-19yo in 2018. With U.S. National Suicide Prevention Week less than two weeks away, programs have lagged the promise of policy.
In 2018, Congresswoman Watson Coleman, a longtime advocate for mental health for the black community, introduced what became the “Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act of 2019,” which passed the House but stalled in the Senate. Subsequently, the Congressional Black Caucus established the Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, with Rep. Watson Coleman as chair. Ongoing legislation has proposed funding roundtables and training to rally policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels. Recommendations from those have included NIH/NIMH funding, best practices, and community engagement, awareness, and new research including multiple studies on suicide trends behavior particular to black teens that outpacing that of white peers as illustrated in the graph below.
Despite research showing a clear correlation between increasing rates of suicide, lack of mental health services utilization, and the pervasive impact of institutionalized racism on the black community, misconceptions that “black people do not kill themselves,” and are more often the victim of homicide continues to ignore the influence of deliberate, high-risk behavior, leading to premature death. Reframing allows for a more accurate picture, but distrust of authority, and trust of peers, lack of family support, and culturally concordant providers, as well as a lack of support from schools, where black teens are more often the target of zero-tolerance policies, all exacerbate the problem.
Government-funded school-based programs can provide mental health services designed to remove barriers to entry using culturally concordant caretakers and near-peer counselors-in-training to engage at-risk black youth and provide services anonymously. Teachers, or students, would initiate referrals into the program, designed around parental needs, social networks, and communities who have an interest in promoting acceptance of services to reduce barriers.
There is no time to waste anticipating federal policy to drive the effort. We need action at local levels, to force the hand of state legislators to champion school-based programs. Once pilot programs show promise, they can be implemented throughout a state and expanded regionally and then, nationally.