July 18, 2024

Suicide prevention efforts focus on historically Black institutions – North Carolina Health News

North Carolina Health News
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CONTENT WARNING: This article references suicide. Please take caution when reading. If you need mental health support, please consult this page for resources.
Louis Keenan Lowndes was feeling the weight of many pressures last year — that of being a first-generation college student at St. Augustine’s University, of the family expectations that come with that and of being a campus leader at the historically Black school in Raleigh. 
So, he started talking to his roommate, Ali DaCosta Paul, a scholarship student who was experiencing similar issues. 
“We just wasn’t getting done what we wanted to do, and so we started sharing our goals each week,” Lowndes recalled recently. 
The senior from Winston-Salem and DaCosta Paul realized that talking to one another about deeper topics — their feelings, their mental health, their faith, the pressures of being a college student and carrying the expectations of family — was helpful, so they decided to open up their discussions to other men on campus. 
“It’s just been so powerful for us, being able to have a space where we can release and just be vulnerable with one another,” Lowndes said. “I want to open up for the men on campus where they can just have a safe space, where we can just have a conversation because sometimes that’s all you need — just a simple conversation and just telling somebody how you feel.”

Lowndes’ group is coming at the right time. The suicide rate for young Black people has increased significantly in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that deaths by suicide increased more than 36 percent for Black people between the ages of 10 and 24.
These trends trouble Victor Armstrong, who works on engagement, equity and outreach for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He’s been taking his message across the state recently to students at historically Black colleges and universities and to the staff who support them. 
Those travels brought Armstrong to Saint Augustine’s in February, where he was joined on stage by Lowndes, who was eager to talk with his peers about mental health and suicide prevention during a panel discussion. 
“Growing up in my community, in the Black community, there was a narrative that we didn’t talk about suicide. For one, it wasn’t a Black problem, was a white problem,” Armstrong told about a dozen staff members at a meeting after the panel discussion with Lowndes. 
The old narrative was that Black people had survived oppression and slavery, they had survived Jim Crow, so they should be able to survive any anxiety or depression they might feel. And that’s counterproductive, Armstrong said. 

“You basically tell them, ‘You don’t have the right to feel what you’re feeling,’ and you tell them to shut those feelings down, which can lead to further problems,” Armstrong said. 
Despite across the board decreases in suicide in the U.S., statistics now show suicide is definitely a Black problem — an even more immediate problem among Black men. Another study from the CDC found that the vast majority of Black people who died by suicide (81 percent) were male. The age group with the highest suicide rate in the Black community is 25 to 34 year olds, Armstrong noted, and the suicide rate for Black men is 4.5 times higher than the rate for Black women. 
About 3,800 Black people in the U.S. died by suicide last year, Armstrong said, and that’s likely an undercount.
“A lot of Black suicides, particularly among young people, go unreported because they’re often characterized differently,” he said. “In order to characterize something as a suicide, there are steps the coroner has to take. Sometimes they don’t take those steps with Black people. With Black youth, it’s easier to characterize it as death by some other means, like as an accidental overdose.”

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One in 10 Black high school students attempted suicide in the past year, according to the CDC’s Youth Behavioral Risk Survey. Two in 10 Black high schoolers reported making a suicide plan, and four in 10 said they felt hopeless. 

“Imagine our babies already feeling hopeless, before their life even starts,” Armstrong said.
Sonyia Richardson, an assistant professor of social work at UNC Charlotte, researches how to reduce suicide among Black youth. She said that too often the U.S. health care system has dehumanized Black people like her when they’ve come looking for help. Richardson said she was dismayed by some of the reactions she received when she was interviewing health care providers about a suicide prevention program she was working on. 
“‘We don’t know if these Black families are going to respond to this,’” she said the providers told her. 
“‘We don’t know if the parents are really invested,’” was another comment she recalled receiving. 
“And then we heard things like, ‘Well, the children come to the hospitals because they want to get away from their parents because they don’t want to be home with their Black parents,’” Richardson said. “We’re hearing all of this feedback during our qualitative study that was so dehumanizing of Black people.”
Such biases can lead providers to respond to Black patients in a way that is more likely to lead to them abandoning therapy that might help them.
“When it comes to us getting well, if you don’t even see us as human, how are you going to help us to become well?” Richardson asked. 
Armstrong said that one of the challenges in Black communities is the high level of trauma some experience. Armstrong said three in five Black children have had at least one adverse childhood experience, putting them more at risk than white or Latino people.
Adverse childhood experiences are traumatic events — abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, having a parent be incarcerated — that happen to or are witnessed by children who then go on to have health and mental health issues when they become adults. 
And then there are the usual pressures put on college students, “especially first-generation college students,” Lowndes said. “We have so much pressure to just finish college, but also now that we have social media, just comparing ourselves daily to the other person next to us, thinking that we’re not doing enough, thinking that we aren’t enough.”
That can take a toll on a person’s mental health, Lowndes said. 
“This college thing is a new thing for us, and it’s very important for us to lean on each other and just have these conversations,” he said. 
That’s why Armstrong is focusing on college students, especially historically Black colleges and universities.
“We’re trying to break the cycle of misinformation around suicide in the Black community,” Armstrong said. “Not only is the younger population more accepting of that conversation, but those college kids, once they leave college, at the end of the year, they go back to their homes all across the country. And it gives us a way of really reaching and kind of increasing our impact because we’re able to then disseminate that information back to those communities.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has not historically had a relationship with organizations that serve people of color, Armstrong said, but it’s his job to reach out to HBCUs, Black churches and other Black institutions. 
Part of Armstrong’s work has been to create educational and therapeutic training materials that focus more on the experiences of people of color and use images of Black people that make them feel seen and heard.
“If people can deal with some of those traumas that they internalize, that’s the beginning of their healing,” Armstrong said.

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by Rose Hoban, North Carolina Health News
March 20, 2024
This <a target="_blank" href="https://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2024/03/20/suicide-prevention-efforts-historically-black-institutions-hbcus/">article</a> first appeared on <a target="_blank" href="https://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org">North Carolina Health News</a> and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.<img src="https://i0.wp.com/www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/cropped-favicon02.jpg?fit=150%2C150&amp;ssl=1" style="width:1em;height:1em;margin-left:10px;"><img id="republication-tracker-tool-source" src="https://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/?republication-pixel=true&post=52814" style="width:1px;height:1px;">
Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter.
Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees in public health policy and journalism. She’s reported on science, health, policy and research in NC since 2005. Contact: editor at northcarolinahealthnews.org
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