As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, it is necessary to discuss a dangerous issue in the Black community. No mincing of words here. There is a new epidemic plaguing our youth. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, Black young people aged 10-19 experienced a 78 percent increase in suicide in comparison to other races. When you delve into the other age subgroups, the results are even more sobering. A research study conducted by the AAMC found that younger children, aged 5-12, were twice as likely to commit suicide than white children in the same age demographic. What is causing our youth to have such a bleak outlook on life that they are willing to take their own after brief stints here on Earth?
The summer of 2020 has been referred to as the Summer of Racial Reckoning. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin served as a polarizing catalyst. Earlier in the year, Breonna Taylor was killed in her Louisville, Kentucky apartment when several officers forced entry into her home and reportedly shot her six times. The officers were looking for Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who was in the house with her. After several protests, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted three of the cops on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and civil rights violations pertaining to the procurement of the search warrant for Walker. Former Detective Brett Hankison was indicted later that year on three counts of wanton endangerment due to bullets from his gun reportedly entering a neighboring apartment where a white family resided. No charges were brought forth for the bullets that allegedly entered an upstairs apartment inhabited by a Black family. Additionally, no one was charged with the actual shooting of Taylor – an innocent civilian who had been asleep in her bed. Less than a month before Taylor’s death, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Georgia man, was murdered while going for a jog in a Glynn County suburb. Arbery was hunted down by three white men who claimed they believed he was a burglar. Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan chased him in a vehicle for several minutes, blocking him from running away. Travis shot him with a shotgun while Bryan recorded on a cellphone.
Although Chauvin was prosecuted and found guilty, the psychological effects of watching him kneel on the neck of Floyd while the latter cried out in agony and fear persisted. Footage of Arbery’s murder was gut-wrenching, and it certainly did not help that COVID-19 forced the country to shelter in place. There was nothing to distract from the despair and grief experienced in the wake of the murder. Stanford researchers examined the psychological fallout. They found that while more than half of all African Americans reported feelings of anger or sadness, almost 1 million more screened positive for depression. Assistant professor of research in psychology for the School of Humanities and Sciences Johannes Eichstaedt stated in Standford News, “Coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, national surveys were tracking how the mental health of the population was developing. When George Floyd was murdered, these data collections caught the dramatic psychological impact, giving us a glimpse of how this collective moral injury impacted emotions and mental health.”
Confined to their homes without the usual distraction of school, sports, and other social outlets, young people were forced to face the issue of racism and brutality head-on, unlike the previous generation. Gen Z, as some like to refer to those born in the late 1990s and early 2010s, were witnessing full-fledged, in-your-face hate crimes in 4K. Sure racism is woven into the very fabric of the United States, but it definitely hits different when you have constant, front row access to the horrors whether you want it or not. Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter have, in many cases, replaced the local news when it comes to teenagers and young adults. For parents of Black children that are coming of age in this day and time, it’s difficult. It’s unsettling, uncomfortable, and downright terrifying trying to comfort and explain why these things are happening.
How do you ease the concerns of young Black men and women watching the murder and assault of American citizens just because of their race – and many times at the hands of those pledged to serve and protect? Studies have determined that realization of discrimination can occur as early as the age of 6. Those who witness or experience said discrimination are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, make suicide plans, and attempt to end their lives. According to a December 2021 advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General, Black youth were more at risk for depression, anxiety, and stress as a result of the pandemic. April Clay, head of counseling and psychological services at California State University, Los Angeles has affirmed Black students are in a crisis. “Many Black students are experiencing paralyzing anxiety and grief. It’s hard to talk about, and it’s hard for them to find help,” she noted. African American students are also often misdiagnosed in school settings, making it difficult for them to receive the help they need. More often than not, racially biased assessments cause actual mental health issues to be incorrectly labeled as behavioral problems.
With COVID no longer forcing social distancing, kids are back in school, but the underlying issues persist. Black people are still being murdered in hate crimes, and social media has become another source of stress as children navigate through their scholastic years. In addition to making young people captive audiences as videos of these hate crimes pop up on their timelines daily, unrealistic expectations of perfection also creep in. Comparison is the thief of joy and, unfortunately, social media causes just that for many youth. Then there is the need for acceptance. Basing your self-worth on something as superficial as how many “likes” you receive on an image or post can be extremely detrimental. Research conducted by the University of Utah in January 2023 found that young social media users are more than three times as likely to experience depression. In addition to losing the ability to differentiate the internet from real life, unlimited access to anything, any time, anywhere can also have a negative effect.
On the flip side of filtered photos and curated social influencer content lies something more sinister: Bullying and hate speech. The awkward moments of the teenage years as well as navigation through first relationships and breakups are being played out on a worldwide stage, inviting more scrutiny and judgment than support. While we can’t completely dismantle social media and shield our youth from the display of brutal racism, we do need to find a solution to the morbid situation at hand. Our youth, our leaders of the future are fighting battles they perceive to be so bleak that they are checking out of this life at very young ages and at a very high rate. As mental health becomes less of a taboo topic in the Black community, we need to take more action. Perhaps that comes in the form of more Black counselors, therapists, and mental health advocates. Maybe that comes in the form of more family counseling. It won’t be an overnight fix, but steps of action must be taken immediately and firmly. After all, we’re all we got.