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Coming Together to Prevent Suicide in Black Communities

25 Feb 2022 — 5 min read

By AFSP

A banner reading: "Elevating Voices for Long-Lasting Change"

Removing the Shame from Eating Disorders and Suicide

As part of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Elevating Voices for Long-Lasting Change town hall series, which convenes leading experts in mental health and suicide prevention from diverse communities to improve public understanding of their range of experiences and support their unique needs, AFSP’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Christine Yu Moutier, moderated a vibrant discussion on “Coming Together to Prevent Suicide in Black Communities.”

Expert panelists included:

Victor Armstrong, M.S.W., Deputy Secretary for Health Equity and Chief Health Equity Officer, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services

Alfiee (Dr. Alfiee) Breland-Noble, Ph.D., Founder and Board President, The AAKOMA Project

Tami Benton, MD, FAACAP, FAAP, Psychiatrist-in-Chief, Executive Director and Chair, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Below are just a few quotes from this important and thought-provoking conversation, edited for length and clarity.

You may watch the full discussion here: https://fb.me/e/4GShnalvn

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On suicide loss and prevention in Black communities:

Dr. Breland-Noble − “Suicide and suicidal thoughts do not discriminate. The world may discriminate, but suicide doesn’t.”

Dr. Benton − “Youth suicide is real, and it happens in the Black community. When I was growing up, I used to think that Black people didn’t die by suicide. And I know a lot of people still believe that it’s not a problem that’s relevant to Black Americans because our research has supported that misperception. Historically it has been focused on majority youth and not minority youth.”

Rates of suicide are increasing for Black youth. Between 2009 and 2019, the suicide rates increased more than 50% for Black youth between the ages of 5 and 11. For older adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19, the rates were even higher. Because suicide is preventable, every single loss is significant.”

Dr. Moutier − “Suicide is a potentially preventable cause of death, but it doesn’t mean that in every instance it could have been prevented. We don’t know that. When we talk about prevention, what we mean is that from a public health standpoint we have got to invest in research and mental health equity, focused on Black communities and all minoritized groups.”

Vic Armstrong – “Intersectionality is so important in these conversations. Thinking about the nuances of race, culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic status differently than we have in the past. Historically the Black community has not seen themselves reflected in suicide interventions and treatment modalities for mental health in general. We have to create interventions that are reflective of all of us, not just a subset of us.”

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On recognizing the factors that contribute to suicidal behavior and suicidal feelings in minoritized communities:

Dr. Breland-Noble − “It’s important for us to realize that there are aspects of lived experience that are unique to minoritized communities. We must recognize things like racism, discrimination, trauma, what it means to be a child of an immigrant family, and what it means to be an immigrant yourself. We must factor these things into our understanding of mental health and work in suicide prevention.

One of the things that can be helpful is asking people what they need. For example, as a researcher, I feel it’s important for us to go sit with young people, their families, and community leaders and say, ‘What’s missing and how do you feel that impacts the disparity that young people feel?’”

Dr. Benton − “Racial trauma is a form of race-based stress that refers to people of color and indigenous people, and our reactions to dangerous events - real or perceived, and experiences of racial discrimination. It can manifest like post-traumatic stress disorder in many ways, but what’s different about it is it’s cumulative, continuous, and daily. It takes the form of microaggressions, macroaggressions, and witnessing these things happen to other people.

The healing component will require us to use what are inherent cultural and racial strengths that have carried us through other times. Things aren’t worse for Black people than they were in the past; they’ve been bad for a very long time. How did we get through these things? We utilized the strengths in our community.”

Vic Armstrong − “Access to culturally competent care in our community is so important. Suicide itself is not a disease; it is the worst possible outcome of a culmination of a lot of very complex factors. What that means is, we have a lot of opportunities to intervene, but we miss those opportunities because we don’t recognize the signs and when we do recognize them, we don’t have the resources that speak to the needs of the person at that time.”

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On advocating for the mental health of Black communities:

Dr. Breland-Noble − “If there are enough voices, a cacophony of voices, saying mental health care is important in our communities, you need to pay attention to this, I think people don’t have a choice but to focus on it.”

Dr. Benton − “Cultural humility is really important. Being open to learning about others and asking questions. Saying, ‘I don’t necessarily understand what you’re going through, but I want to understand what you’re going through.’ We are better together, and we are stronger together when we recognize one another’s humanity.”

Dr. Moutier – “We must spread this conversation about cultural humility to every health training program, psych program, medical school, pediatric program, health system, policy makers, educators and beyond. It’s about basic human empathy. I know about the concept intellectually, but I need to hear the stories to connect the dots between data, history, feelings, and human beings.”

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On hope and progress:

Vic Armstrong − “I grew up the son of a pastor in the rural South. For me, the church and faith-based community has always been the gateway to the Black community. One of the things that I’m really excited about is looking for new ways to engage the faith-based community as a resource for reaching into the Black community and normalizing the conversation around suicide. I am excited to be involved with Soul Shop through AFSP: it’s a toolkit that provides instruction on how to engage in conversations about suicide and to help faith-based communities intervene when people in the congregation are struggling.”

Dr. Benton − “I’ve been really inspired by conversations like these and by the report from the Black Congressional Task Force [on Black Youth Suicide] in which scholars, clinicians, and people with lived experience came together to lay out a roadmap for how we’re going to make a change in suicide prevention. Also, AFSP’s involvement in my own community in West Philadelphia has helped the community see declines in rates of suicide in Philadelphia County. I’m inspired and hopeful.”

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We encourage you to watch and share the full conversation: https://fb.me/e/4GShnalvn.

Learn more about mental health resources for underrepresented communities.

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