The Correlation Between Mental Health and Suicide Rates Among African American Male Youth

Academic Blog by: Leah Spivey

Leah spiveyLeah Spivey was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan and attended Renaissance high school. She is currently a graduating senior at the University of Michigan studying International Studies with a concentration in Global Environment and Health and a minor in Gender and Health. She currently serves as the Community Outreach Chair for the Black Student Union and works as a Community Assistant for the Connector in West Quad. She is passionate about eliminating health inequities for people of color and low income populations. She hopes to continue her studies by pursuing a Master of Public Health degree.

Did you know that an African American boy is suffering in silence and is waiting to be heard? This boy has a mental health disorder that is not recognized by himself or his support system, all he knows is that he feels sad, angry, and alone. He tries to express to his parents how he feels but they tell him to brush it off, stay strong, and that this feeling will go away eventually. At school, he acts out of anger and aggression trying his hardest to be seen and heard, his teacher suspends him and calls him a "bad" kid. He goes home that day feeling even worse about himself. It's been months and things still have not gotten better, he is crying out for help but no one is listening. He doesn't know how to get help nor who to ask. He feels stuck and eventually, he concludes that the only way to release himself from this feeling is to end his life.

After attending a Black Student Union meeting where mental health and suicide were discussed, I became interested in exploring the correlation between mental health and suicide rates among African American Male youth. African American boys ages 5 to 11 are the only age group where suicide rates among African Americans are higher than any other racial and ethnic group. For African American male youth 12 and up, suicide rates have been rising and African American teenagers are more likely to commit suicide than their white counterparts. These statistics were very surprising to me and I wanted to study the reasoning behind them.

After reviewing the literature, I found that one of the main correlations between mental health and suicide in African American male youth was the lack of safe spaces. Many African American boys are socialized in a manner where showing emotion is a sign of weakness. This in turn makes it difficult, especially those with mental health disorders such as depression, to express their feelings and feel safe. African American adolescents who are living in high risk settings experience depression at greater levels and at a higher rate than adolescents from other racial and ethnic groups in the United States. When a lack of safe space occurs, many of them begin to act out in anger and aggression in places such as school and teachers misinterpret the behavior as being a bad student rather than depressive symptoms. Not recognizing these symptoms leads to a lack of proper care for their mental health disorders. African American adolescents with major depression disorders are 87% less likely to have received mental health services than white adolescents. The stigmas associated with mental health disorders, as well as low socioeconomic status, and mistrust in the health system contributes to the lack of proper care seeking as well.

Many times, not receiving the proper care needed results in extreme behaviors such as suicide. More than 80% of suicide among African American adolescents are males. This is a major disparity and in order to lower suicide rates I believe it is necessary to understand the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders through programs such as the Sharing Hope Program which gives African Americans a guide to mental health. More research also needs to be done on the factors that can cause mental health disorders in African American communities. I also believe that teachers should receive mental health training so that they are able to detect and properly handle mental health situations with students of all backgrounds. Lastly spaces need to be created that allows African American males to express their emotions and have a strong support system.