Is racism making black kids suicidal?

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The suicide rate among black children has nearly doubled since the early 1990s, the New York Times reported last year. Meanwhile, a new Pew study has found that race relations in America have worsened over the past eight years.


Could these two findings be related?

According to a new study, 35% of black adolescents between ages 10-12 have thought about death, whether their own or death in general; and the more they'd felt discriminated against, the more likely they were to have thought about death.


"We know that suicide is a problem among black youths, and discrimination is one of many factors that may be contributing," Walker told me by phone.

The study looked at 722 black 10- and 12-year-olds from Iowa and Georgia who has completed a comprehensive questionnaire about their feelings. For a one-unit increase in racial discrimination, Walker and her coauthors found an approximately 4% increase in the odds of a subject having thought about death. Anxiety, which can be precipitated by discrimination, also played a role in suicidal ideation—the study found a 33% increase in the odds of thinking about death given a one-unit increase in anxiety symptoms. The study controlled for subject life events that may influence thoughts of death, like a stressful home environment. Because the dataset Walker and her colleagues drew from was focused on discrimination, there was no way to compare how many white adolescents had thought about death.

"Emerging adults who have a less than positive cultural identity and who internalize racism are also more prone to depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide," Walker wrote in an op-ed in Ebony prior to the release of her study. "Parents and other caregivers must protect black children from subtle messaging that their lives don’t matter. Such messaging can be more detrimental than fractured limbs and bruised faces as it’s hard to heal what one cannot see."

Walker's findings are supported by the fact that, over the past two decades, the suicide rate among white youth has declined. Experts have suggested that things like religiosity that used to shield black youths from high suicide rates may have begun to weaken.


“What it means to grow up young and black has changed,” Professor Sean Joe at the Washington University in St. Louis said. “Something happened that put black teens at risk.”

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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