Denise Hooks-Anderson, M.D.

It was once almost unheard of to have conversations around the topics of suicide in the black community. However, recently it seems to be a frequent subject of discussion. Not only have I lost a patient as a result of suicide but I have also known people within my personal circle who have lost loved ones.

Just so that we are clear, someone does not just wake up one day and decide to take their life.  In general, people who commit suicide are battling depression, bipolar disorder, or some other form of mental illness. Unfortunately, sometimes it is difficult to recognize that the individual is mentally ill due to their unblemished public facade.

However, the black community cannot continue to pretend that mental health problems only occur in white communities.  Our community is suffering, crying out for help. We must respond.

The first step is recognizing that mental illness exists and understanding that even young children are affected. I just recently returned from a small Kentucky community where a 10-year-old child had committed suicide by hanging himself. This young boy was a victim of bullying. He was the eighth suicide in that particular school district for the 2018/2019 school term. Hearing that news story made me sick to my stomach.

A 2018 JAMA Pediatrics study found that among children ages 5 to 12, the suicide rates of black children exceeded that of young whites. This was true for boys and girls. Much of the past research has been on suicide rates in whites but with this disturbing trend, it is obvious that more investigation is needed.

Cyber-bullying is definitely contributing to the daily pressures our young people are facing.  Whether it is a mean post about how someone is dressed, posts about who is having sex, or sexting photos shared with the entire school, social media in the 21st century is out of control.  And when you combine social media with an underdeveloped pre-teen and teen brain, negative results should be expected.

As a community, what are some clues that should trigger concern? 

Change in behavior. If your sweet child all of a sudden becomes sullen or withdrawn, something has happened. Don’t wait to see if it passes. Investigate the situation early. Talk with his/her teachers and counselors. Maybe they have noticed something as well.

Change in style of dress. Most kids have their own sense of style. If however, out of nowhere your usual prissy-dressing daughter changes to all black, baggy clothes and insists on staying in her room, don’t just assume it is a phase. Maybe it is a phase – or maybe she is depressed. 

Change in life outlook. Take what kids say seriously. If your child starts to make comments like: “I would be better off dead,” don’t brush it off as a joke. All such comments should be addressed.

The threshold for seeking help for mental illness should be low and free from embarrassment and ridicule. If our prized Mercedes was leaking oil, we would not ignore the issue in hopes that the problem would fix itself. In fact, we would seek out the best mechanic in town. Mental health problems in our children deserve our attention. Many of our children need to see a licensed professional, not just their pastor or priest.

If you are concerned about your child, teen, or young adult, please call your insurance company and ask for a list of therapists who take your insurance. That one call could save your child’s life.

Denise Hooks-Anderson, M.D., is assistant professor at SLUCare Family Medicine and medical accuracy editor of The St. Louis American. Email: yourhealthmatters@stlamerican.com.

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