By Sherry Molock, Ph.D., M.Div., Department of Psychological Brain Sciences, George Washington University
Suicide is a significant public health challenge and continues to cause concerns for communities of color which have disproportionately less access to preventive care, less access to adequate and appropriate health care services in times of need, and fewer resources that are tailored to fit particular cultural or ethnic groups. Moreover, data collection is limited, making it difficult to generate accurate analyses and reports, and to develop responsive resources. What is certain, is that ethnicity and race are best understood in the context of other relevant factors such as age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, education, physical and mental health, socioeconomic status, and religion, among others. This is especially important to consider when addressing the needs of college students of color.
Suicide ideation, suicide planning, attempts, and completion rates vary among multicultural groups. Among Black or African American populations, suicide rates peak during adolescence and young adulthood.(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] (2021.) Suicide rates among Hispanic populations remain somewhat steady from age 15 through the lifespan. (CDC, 2021). Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Asian Americans aged 15−34, and American Indian/Alaskan Native youth and youth with multiple racial identities have the highest rates of suicidal ideation, suicide plans, suicide attempts, and suicide deaths (CDC, 2022). In order to reduce suicide among Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) youth, we need to better understand the factors that put them at risk for suicide as well as the factors that protect them from suicide by buffering the adverse impacts of risk factors and/or promoting resilience.
Risk factors are characteristics that increase the likelihood that individuals will develop problematic behaviors; it is important to note that risk factors are not static and can change over time. Key risk factors for suicidal behaviors in youth in general include: 1) the presence of a psychiatric disorder, 2) gender (with females being more likely to attempt suicide and males being more likely to die from suicide), 3) prior suicide attempts, 4) being a victim or perpetrator of bullying, 5) socioeconomic factors, 6) family functioning, 7) exposure to suicide, and 8) access to means (CDC, 2020).
When examining suicidal thoughts and behavior in BIPOC young people, it is important to also look at structural risk factors for suicide, including stigma against suicide, exposure to racial/ethnic discrimination, and national and local policies that are hostile to racial and/or sexual minority youth and barriers to access to mental health care. Unfortunately, there are often barriers to BIPOC youth getting much needed treatment. Additionally, BIPOC young people may express warning signs for suicide differently than their white counterparts. For example, BIPOC youth may express depression through acting out or complaining about physical symptoms (e.g., stomach aches, headaches) rather than complaining about feeling sad or blue. BIPOC young people are also more likely to underreport feelings of depression and suicide, which may be due, in part, to the stigma associated with suicide and seeking help for mental health challenges. BIPOC families may not have the financial resources to afford mental health treatment, and BIPOC community norms may not support seeking professional mental health services. The latter may carry over to college and prevent students from seeking help.
While we want to reduce risk factors associated with suicidal thoughts and behaviors in BIPOC youth, we want to simultaneously increase protective factors against suicide. Protective factors are characteristics in the individual’s world that mitigate the development of psychopathology or problem behaviors, often by interacting with the risk factor to moderate risk (Tebes et al., 2001). Protective factors against youth suicide can be broadly categorized into five groups: personal factors (e.g., positive racial/ethnic identity), strong family support, peer/community support, stable environment (i.e., stable family housing, income, and employment), and religious and spiritual engagement (CDC, 2020). Two protective factors that are particularly important are social cohesion and “mattering.” Social cohesion creates a sense of belonging for youth and can be achieved in many different ways, including family, relational, and religious connections. Mattering is the sense that people care about you, “just because;” you are not valuable because of your talents or for what you do for others, but are valued because you are a human being who should be celebrated and affirmed. Mattering means people value your opinion, and care about how you feel. Mattering involves noticing when you are absent and checking to make sure you’re okay. It involves celebrating when things are going well and commiserating with you when they are not. People who feel like they don’t matter often feel marginalized and disconnected from family, community, and friends.
So, what can we do to make sure BIPOC young people not only survive but thrive? We can try to minimize/eliminate risk factors while simultaneously enhancing protective factors which are culturally appropriate at the individual, family, community, and broader levels. While linking students to services, particularly during a mental health crisis, is critical to suicide prevention, we also need to think of more preventive, upstream approaches that can prevent suicide crises before they occur. This would include strengthening economic supports for BIPOC families, counseling services, strengthening financial and food security and stable housing. Other things we can do to strengthen protective factors include strengthening access to mental health services, having culturally informed mental health professionals, creating safe, protective environments across communities and on campus, and promoting social connectedness through peer programs on campus, affinity organizations or activities that promote help-seeking. Partnering with faith and other community organizations can also be helpful.
In the event that youth are experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors, it is important to know the warning signs, including feeling depressed, anxious, acting out, socially withdrawing, significant changes in eating and/or sleeping habits, changes in school performance, increase in alcohol and/or drug use. If the young person is suicidal,
- TAKE ACTION. Call/text 988 – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Text STEVE to 741741, 24-7 to speak with a trained crisis counselor
- LGBTQIA+ youth can call the Trevor Project crisis line: 866-488-7386