The recent suicide of a 23-year-old black man who was a leading member of Ohio’s Black Lives Matter movement raises concerns about African American suicidal behavior.
Anyone delving into the issue of African American suicide finds a great deal of confusion and ambiguity. On the one hand, the national statistics reveal that African American women have the lowest rates of suicide of anyone in the United States at 2/100,000 – about half that of white women. Similarly, African American males historically have had half the suicide rates of white men. As to the question of what accounts for this disparity – no one knows.
Some have argued that spirituality protects African Americans from such self-destruction, but the solid scientific evidence for this is watery. When I have asked black women about the reason for their low rates of suicide, their responses have been “I don’t have time to kill myself,” and “I have too many people to take care of to kill myself,” but these reactions are anecdotal at best.
Another consideration is the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the actual overall rates of suicide are 11/100,000, and in young adults , it may be as high as 20/100,000, making completed suicide a very rare event. How can someone identify 20 people in a population of 100,000? And when we look at homicide rates, we find that they have never exceeded suicide rates.
These two considerations have made the scientific study of suicide prevention extraordinarily difficult. Of course, any study of suicide in the African American community would have to factor in depression, schizophrenia, traumatic brain injuries, and posttraumatic stress disorders, as these disorders are most certainly associated with a higher risk of suicide. The same holds true for alcohol and drug addiction, as well as anxiety disorders, but even here, the rates are fairly low.
To further complicate matters, there is the association of adverse childhood experiences with suicide attempts. However, again, suicides are a very rare phenomenon, making drawing any statistical conclusions about what causes or prevents suicide impossible. It has been suggested that the never-ending microinsults and discrimination that African Americans experience slowly but surely erode vital self-esteem, resulting in a fatalistic demoralization and ending in self-destruction.
Someone taking his own life is a very complex conundrum, and when that lens gets focused on African American suicides, the challenge is all the more difficult because of the dearth of research on African Americans. Perhaps if there were more research, by now someone would have answered the question of why African American women have the lowest rates of suicide, compared with other demographic groups in our nation.
The long and short of it is, whenever there is a suicide that is highly publicized, everyone comes out of the woodwork with various theories and explanations, but we cannot afford to let the media shape our science. We need serious inquiry into mental health issues of people of color. Behavior is multidetermined. With serious investigation, we may be able to identify some factors that have a 30%-40% influence on a behavioral outcome, and research may be able to understand how to influence those factors and change them so their impact is reduced in shaping behavioral outcomes. But for now, we simply do not know enough about the rare event of suicide in African Americans to speculate about why individuals took their lives or how to prevent such tragedies. Clearly, whenever we hear of a suicide of a gifted African American youth like MarShawn M. McCarrel II , who did so much for so many, we wonder what his motivation may have been. He certainly had so much more to contribute to life.
Dr. Bell is a retired professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital’s Outpatient Family Practice Clinic in Chicago. Dr. Bell is the former president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council and former director of the Institute for Juvenile Research (birthplace of child psychiatry) at the university.