Dr. Charmain Jackman & Aneesha Perkins
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and it is critical to address a growing issue that is impacting Black and Brown communities – death by suicide. According to the NIMH, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for Black children and the 3rd leading cause of death for Black adolescents. While suicide is a topic that can be hard to discuss, breaking the silence on suicide is necessary if we want to change the devastating outcomes.
Check out some of the common myths and facts about suicide, red flags, and strategies you can use to support your loved ones who may be contemplating suicide:
Suicide Impacts People of Color – Suicide is only prevalent among certain racial groups, right? False. At one point, there was a common misconception that suicide only impacted White people. However, the data shows a different narrative. In fact, suicide rates remain highest among Native and Pacific Islander youth, and we are seeing suicide rates for Black and Asian youth rapidly increase by 47% and 40% respectively over the past 5 years. Communities of color are being impacted, and the data shows it. We can no longer ignore these truths.
If Someone Says They're Suicidal, Listen – “They said they're having suicidal thoughts, but they probably don't mean it, right?” False. While you cannot predict if someone will die by suicide, sometimes there are cues to listen for that can raise your awareness. If the individual expresses that they have a plan to kill themself, set aside some time immediately to listen to their concerns and challenges. Dr. Jackman, who has worked with youth of color for over 23 years shares that, "even if it's a joke when a child talks about harming themselves, take it seriously.” Listen attentively and provide a space of comfort for your loved one. It is also important to note that sometimes people may be thinking about killing themselves for a long time, and for others, it may be more impulsive. If you have concerns, connect them to their primary care doctor, pediatrician, or a therapist for further assessment and to develop a safety plan.
Talking About Suicide Won't Encourage Suicidality – "If I talk about it with them, they're more than likely going to do it, right?" False. There may be some hesitancy or fear in talking about suicide with someone you care about as you may worry that discussing it with them will increase their risk of suicide. Yet, it is a healthy practice to discuss suicide with your family, friends, and children to help reduce the stigma. Dr. Jackman stated, “the more we talk about it, the more we normalize those conversations.” Most importantly, discussing such a challenging matter more frequently can help create an inviting space amongst those you care for the most.
Pay Attention to Abnormal Behaviors – Did your son or niece write a goodbye letter to their family or friends? Are they engaging in behaviors that seem out of character? If you observe odd behaviors, ask them about it. Approach them calmly and with a curious mindset. Sometimes, someone contemplating suicide may get rid of valuable items or say goodbye to loved ones. Also, the individual may make jokes about dying or not wanting to live anymore. Take those behaviors and actions seriously and discuss them more in-depth with your loved one. If they share a plan to hurt or kill themselves, help them connect to emergency services and a therapist. Here's a national suicide prevention lifeline https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ that you can provide as well. We also recommend a suicide prevention training that Dr. Jackman co-facilitated with staff from Samaritans, Inc. which addresses risk factors and strategies for talking with family members.
Understand the Difference Between Passive versus Active Suicidal Thoughts – Is the individual talking actively or passively about suicide? There's a difference between the two terms. Passive thoughts mean that the individual has experienced thoughts of dying by suicide, yet they do not have a plan. They may make statements like, “People would be better off if I was not around” or “I just feel like sleeping forever.” Active thoughts are when the individual has a plan and intention to kill themself (i.e., writing a goodbye letter, practicing how they would kill themselves, purchasing a firearm). Ask questions that will help you better understand if they are having active or passive thoughts, as it will help you know the next best steps to support your loved one.
Does discussing suicide with someone you care for make you nervous or uncomfortable? That's understandable. The more conversations you begin to have as the topic arises, the more aware you can become of best practices to utilize. One of the best things you can do with someone who is feeling suicidal is to listen, be present, and be supportive in a helpful way.
For additional support, check out these crisis resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255 or text HELLO to 741741
The Trevor Project Suicide Line for LGBTQ Youth: (866) 488-7386
Suicide Prevention Training - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmvBrsizETg
Samaritan’s Inc: www.samaritanshopr.org
InnoPsych’s crisis resource page: www.InnoPsych.com/resources
Gordon, G. (2020). Addressing the Crisis of Black Youth Suicide. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/messages/2020/addressing-the-crisis-of-black-youth-suicide
Mental health screening tools for depression, anxiety, and other concerns: https://screening.mhanational.org/screening-tools/