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Black Teenagers With Mental Health Issues May Be Reluctant To Seek Help


Before we begin the next story, we want to warn you it is about suicide, and it's going to last for about four minutes. New data from the CDC shows that suicide rates are up more than 50% among young people between the ages of 10 and 24. A recent study found that Black adolescents were especially likely to make an attempt. From American Public Media's Call to Mind project, Alisa Roth reports.

ALISA ROTH, BYLINE: Aabri Spear wants to talk about mental health.

AABRI: I know it's not talked about enough, and I want it to be normalized.

ROTH: Aabri's 14 and a sophomore in high school in Southern California. We caught up on Zoom after virtual school one day. She was sitting in her bedroom, where she showed me an elaborate mural of trees she'd painted on the walls. She says she started thinking about killing herself when she was 8. But her family never talked about mental health until she wound up in the hospital when she was in middle school.

AABRI: We never talked about it. It wasn't a topic that we brought up in the house.

ROTH: Aabri is Black, and she especially wants to make talking about mental health normal for kids like her.

AABRI: I have a lot of Black friends who have struggled with it, who are struggling with it. And they don't like to talk about it because it's like, that's a white person thing.

ROTH: Hurting yourself isn't just a white person thing. Suicide rates among young people have been going up for more than a decade. But it is worse for Black kids, especially if you look at attempts, not suicides.

MICHAEL LINDSEY: Blacks were the only group for which the rates actually were trending upward.

ROTH: Michael Lindsey is a professor at NYU and the lead author of a study published in the journal Pediatrics last year. It found the rate of suicide attempts among Black kids went up almost 75% between 1991 and 2017. Lindsey's analyzing data from 2019 now and believes the trend will continue. Suicide attempts are the biggest risk factor for suicide. Nobody knows exactly why more Black children are trying to hurt themselves. Lindsey points to the fact that Black kids are less likely to be getting mental health care.

Donna Holland Barnes is a professor in the psychiatry department at Howard University, where she teaches medical students about suicide risk management. She says signs of depression can be different in white and Black kids. In Black kids, depression sometimes shows up as being angry or what adults see as being disobedient. And she says Black kids may face stresses white kids don't.

DONNA HOLLAND BARNES: They're not always treated the same. Racism is alive and well.

ROTH: Barnes says it's important to train adults to watch for behaviors like giving away prized possessions.

HOLLAND BARNES: Anywhere where they are, we need to be able to have somebody recognize the signs.

ROTH: Boys and Girls Clubs around the country have been trying to do just that. Last year, three kids at clubs in the Columbus, Ohio, area admitted they'd been contemplating suicide, and staff realized they needed to do something. Olivia Namulindwa runs one of the clubs.

OLIVIA NAMULINDWA: It was kind of like a moment to make sure we educate ourselves on the situation and then apply that in working with the youth directly.

ROTH: She and her colleagues reached out to the children's hospital and to a national suicide prevention group for guidance and some training. One thing they learned - talking about suicide doesn't encourage kids to do it. In fact, it can save a life. Experts say that's an especially important lesson right now, since they know COVID and the killing of George Floyd is adding to the stress on Black kids.

For NPR News, I'm Alisa Roth.


MARTIN: If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there are free trained counselors available 24/7. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS' "NEEDED LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alisa Roth