Exploring Human Potential

Suicides in Black Boys and America’s “More Perfect Union”.

Posted on | May 22, 2015 | No Comments


Mike Magee

The results broadcast in a JAMA report this week on childhood suicides so shocked the researchers that they doubled back to check their facts. The shocker was that suicides in black boys, which had always been markedly less common than in white boys, had suddenly reversed the historic trend.

Specifically, the study on children from age 5 through 11 between 1993 and 2012, which was validated through a number of different data lenses, found that suicides in whites had dropped from 1.96 per million to 1.31 per million; and that the rates in blacks had increased from 1.78 per million to 3.47 per million. Death rates from guns stayed stable in blacks, but declined in whites. And deaths from hanging and suffocation increased in blacks.

The JAMA study heavily focused its discussions on prevention in ages 5 to 11, even though suicides are fifty times more common in ages 12 through 18. Their reasoning was that “upstream protection” through preventive programming and enlightened policy should result in declines throughout adolescence.

The study also reflects on possible causes for the increase rates in young black boys (black girls did not experience a statistically significant increase). The various issues raised included “disproportionate exposure to violence and stress”, “aggressive school discipline”, “early onset of puberty” which can be associated with depression and impulsive aggression”, changes in “social support and religiosity”, and less likelihood of seeking mental health services. But none of these factors are new, and the “experts” seem as uncertain as the rest of us about causation.

Any reasonable list would have to include societal based threats to young black males, understandably reinforced by their concerned parents on a daily basis. (“Don’t run.”) Also, for both blacks and whites, the management of gender identity and sexual orientation issues, known to surface from the earliest years of life, can trap a child inside himself, and corrode hopefulness and visions for an optimistic future. It has been well established that mismanagement of these issues can have profound mental health repercussions, whether as a result of personal, cultural or religious strictures.

Not directly related, but still very worthy of consideration, is the thoughful editorial of Charles Blow this week in the New York Times, titled “Underaffiliated and Underrepresented”. In it, Blow explores the tough language used to identify the mostly peaceful black protesters in Ferguson, MO (“thugs”), versus the romanticized terms used to define the armed and dangerous Waco, NV, biker club members who turned on each other and killed nine. As he says, “The words ‘outlaw’ and ‘biker’ while pejorative to some, still evoke a certain romanticism in the American ethos. They conjure an image of individualism, adventure and virility.” For young black boys, there is nothing romantic about the higher than normal suspension rates of elementary and middle school black kids. Already the most progressive schools are rethinking their “too tough to fail” policies which have translated into “too quick to bail on our children” in high risk areas.

The truth is, that when it comes to kids, and mental health, and dream fulfillment – words matter; communication matters; safety matters; open communication matters; fears matter; personal identities matter; hopefulness matters; fairness matters; peace matters. And all children’s lives matter. We collectively need to address this issue. In doing so, we will not only be following the directive suggested in Matthew 25:40 (“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”), but also take another step in the direction of Lincoln’s “more perfect union.”

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.


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