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Black people make up nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population, but we represent 25 percent of people who die by suicide. We make up 22 percent of the college-age population, but only account for 10 percent of the population. Our high suicide rate may be a symptom of our community’s high socioeconomic status, but it is also a symptom of unhealthy personal and cultural behaviors. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among American teens and 20 to 34-year-olds.
It is no longer surprising that blacks are at a greater risk for suicide. However, the finding that nearly 20 percent of black people who commit suicide have a psychiatric diagnosis is quite startling. That this figure is higher than it is among whites is even more surprising.
Black communities have some of the highest health disparities in the United States. Black women are about 65 percent more likely to die from cardiovascular disease and black men are about 20 percent more likely to die from diabetes. Black communities have fewer doctors than white communities. Black people have a shorter life expectancy, have a higher percentage of uninsured and uninsured children, and are disproportionately incarcerated.
While we have known for decades that mental health is not enough to treat mental illness, we have been blinded by our belief that treating the disease itself will cure the illness. If people do not think they have a mental illness, we do not treat them for their mental illness. This lack of empathy often leads to stereotyping or reducing the severity of our diagnoses or treating them with drugs.
Depression and suicide are illnesses of the brain, and like other illnesses of the brain, can be treated with medication or psychological therapy. Prevention initiatives can reduce the risk of experiencing mental health issues or suicide. It is unfortunate that the largest behavioral health and mental health parity bills in the nation — the Student Wellness Act (S. 3036) and Healthy Futures for All students, which includes prevention measures — have stalled in Congress due to conservative opposition.
Many countries and states have reduced suicide rates through prevention. Finland and Sweden have extremely high suicide rates, but in their suicide prevention programs, they have introduced systems to prevent teens from engaging in harmful behaviors, like smoking or drinking. Public schools, in particular, have a great opportunity to address unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and drinking.
Seniors and teachers play an important role in educating their students on good mental health behaviors and encouraging healthy coping mechanisms. Through these efforts, students often become increasingly concerned about their mental health. No more will they be the poster child for using an alcohol and drug counseling center when they get older.
While we advocate for prevention, we also have an obligation to protect the high suicide rate in our own community. And it seems unfair that we already face such high health disparities when we are six times more likely to die from suicide than Americans overall. Our already high rates of unemployment may lead to disempowerment among black youths. Poor housing, limited education, poor job opportunities and discrimination also contribute to high rates of suicide in our community.
We need to do a better job of treating mental illness in the black community. Prevention programs and mental health parity would go a long way toward helping us get there.
Elisabeth A. Whitaker is the president and CEO of the Child Mind Institute in New York City.