PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice
Dr. Michael A. Lindsey is a scholar in the field of child and adolescent mental health who leads a working group of experts supporting the Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health. Dr. Lindsey, 48, also serves as the executive director of NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research and the Constance and Martin Silver Professor of Poverty Studies at NYU Silver School of Social Work. This is his story, as told to PEOPLE.
When I talk to families who had a child die by suicide, something I always hear is that they had no idea that their child wanted to end their life.
That's why we have to talk about the effects of racism and discrimination on the mental health and wellbeing of Black youth.
When Black kids see photos and videos of a [typically] unarmed Black person being killed by law enforcement or vigilantes — as in the recent cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — it makes them question their reality. They can feel hopeless. When they see the video of George Floyd’s death, they may see themselves, or a loved one. It is traumatizing. It conjures up anxiety about whether that might happen to them, and can make them feel incredibly vulnerable.
We are starting to see that Black youth are becoming increasingly vulnerable to suicidal behavior. Several studies show this. In 2018, a group of experts at Ohio State University’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital conducted a study looking at suicide deaths among 5 to 12 year olds over a span of about 15 years. They found that suicide rates for Black children were roughly two times higher than those of white children. That difference has been growing over the span of the last 15 to 20 years.
A few colleagues and I recently completed a study that analyzed data from 1991 to 2017 from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control. We analyzed four indices of suicidal behavior: thinking about suicide, planning, attempting suicide and having an injury based on a suicide attempt resulting in hospitalization.
Black youth were the only group that had an increase over that span of time in suicide attempts, at 73 percent — all other racial ethnic groups saw a decrease.
There are other factors driving this spike, too, like poverty. Black people are more likely to live in lower-resourced, low-income communities than white people. We know poverty, specifically the stress and trauma that it brings, can lead to depression and trauma, which might be precursors to suicidal behavior.
Black people also tend to have limited connections to mental health resources. In many communities of color, there are little to no mental health providers in a school. These mental health challenges go unaddressed — and when not treated, they can make Black youth vulnerable to psychiatric risk, including suicide.
Look out for the signs: anxiety, nervousness, restless, lack of energy, trouble sleeping. Depression can also look like pessimism, anger or irritability. Yet oftentimes, when Black kids exhibit anger, we look at them differently and treat them differently. Our responses tend to be punitive.
I once spoke with a 15-year-old Black boy who was very depressed. He told me that when he was down about something, he wanted to knock somebody’s head off so they felt the same pain he did. Obviously, if he engages in that type of behavior at school, he’d get suspended. But nobody is seeing that kid might be depressed.
So I often say to loved ones and educators: when a kid is irritable, that could be a sign that they’re struggling with depression.
We often ask folks how they’re doing, and not so much how they’re feeling. It is so important, especially for young kids, to tap into our feelings and talk about them. What we see a lot with kids is a reticence to talk about how they feel, and let people into that space. So practicing on a regular basis is crucial.
Kids, too, can talk to each other. If a white kid wants to check in on their Black friend, they can acknowledge that what’s unfolding [the recent killings of Black people] is not right. It’s not cool, and we need to fight for a better society. Kids are the future, and they can commit themselves to the future being different.
They should ask themselves: "How do we fight injustices at school? How can we call out racism?"
If anyone is really struggling with feelings that life is not worth living, I really urge kids and family members to reach out to support lines for help.
The recent spate of killings has had a tremendous impact on me. I have become very sensitized to being Black in America, and the callous perspective on what that means, especially when you see someone die so unnecessarily, while they’re screaming out for help. Or seemingly benign things that you think you have the right to do, like jog, or enjoy nature in the park.
Hatred has become so weaponized. People are dying. I’ve struggled with my hope that things will ever get better, because haven't we seen this story over and over again? Isn't this our modern-day version of lynching?
But at the same time, the protests and activism taking place give me hope. They give me strength that we're having these important conversations, and it's not even that we're talking about pure racism anymore, but we are taking account of structural racism and how insidious it is. Perhaps change is possible.
We’re also seeing high profile Black athletes and entertainers candidly discuss mental health like Taraji P. Henson, Usher, basketball player DeMar DeRozan. It helps destigmatize these issues so kids talk about them more.
So, I'm strengthened in my resolve. We’ll see what happens next.
- As told to Morgan Smith
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
• ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.