“Something is happening among our Black girls,” Dr. Arielle Sheftall said last fall.
Sheftall, lead investigator of the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, made it her mission to dissect the suicidal behavior of Black youth, and in a 2021 study, she unearthed something important: The rate of suicide among Black girls ages 15 to 17 was increasing at twice the rate of Black boys every year between 2003 and 2017, though more Black boys are dying by suicide than Black girls. This was “quite concerning,” Sheftall told Columbus news station 10 WBNS.
Black youth are abandoned and condemned by authoritative voices at school and sometimes at home. They’ve been trained to bear unfairness while functioning in dysfunctional spaces. Yet, while white youth have been extensively examined and assessed through the years, the ongoing crisis crippling the survivability of Black boys and girls hasn’t been on the radar in the same way. “I think in the past, suicide—or suicidal behavior—was just thought of as a white thing,” Sheftall told the New York Times last fall. But based on the trends that Sheftall and other researchers have lately uncovered, particularly among Black girls, it appears that we should be in emergency mode.
The kids are not doing alright. The arrival of covid wreaked havoc on whatever young people once considered “normal,” distancing them from their peers and stretching a shadow of uncertainty and fear over their developmental years. Against this backdrop, the mental health of young people became more closely watched than ever, and numerous reports, like the New York Times’ extensive look at teens suffering from anxiety and depression in lockdown, have laid bare a crisis. Between the start of covid and early 2021, a quarter of kids reported depression. and one in five reported anxiety, according to a study published last August.
That brings us to the state of Black youth in America. Despite the common assumption that white kids are more prone to suicide compared to other groups, Black youth suicide is alarmingly on the rise. A 2018 study found that the rate of suicide among Black kids under the age of 13 was about twice that of white kids under 13. That same year, suicide became the third leading cause of death in Black teens, and the second leading cause of death in Black kids under the age of 14, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
In January, California reported the state’s suicide rate among Black youth had doubled since 2014. We are reminded daily that Black people are disproportionately killed by police brutality in America, which the U.S. Surgeon General cited in a December 2021 advisory on youth mental health. Thanks to the accessibility of social media, Black kids are more aware than ever before of the history of violence against younger victims, like Tamir Rice—undoubtedly a source of brewing inner turmoil.
And there’s more bad news. A new study, released in April, delved deeper into how covid affected the psychological development of Black girls, from late 2020 to spring 2021. Study author Dr. Natasha Crooks, assistant professor at UIC College of Nursing, interviewed 25 Black girls from the ages of 9 to 18 and discovered an array of issues plaguing her participants, including evidence of “significant psychological and physical consequences, including depression and anxiety, disrupted eating, distorted body image, and changes in self-esteem,” as UIC Today reported. “Black girls are a very vulnerable and unprotected population, especially within the context of covid,” Crooks told the publication.
Crooks also noted that while Black girls struggled with isolation, in a similar fashion to their white counterparts, the additional exposure to social media and the viral footage coming out of Black Lives Matter, most notably of
George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, could be a source of confusion and fear. “A lot of what the girls talked about was feeling empowered to be Black and having a sense of pride within their identities,” said Crooks. “On the other hand, there was fear that came with color of their skin—fear of being harmed themselves, or their fathers, brothers, or other family members being hurt.”
Marline Francois-Madden, a self-described “policy-facing therapist” who authored the book The State of Black Girls, says the mental health of Black girls has been grossly neglected for so long that it was only a matter of time before the data would raise the alarm. “It’s not until the last year and a half that we began seeing more articles talking about some of the differences as it relates to gender, when it comes to Black youth and how Black girls are suffering at an alarming rate,” she told Jezebel. “Now we are slowly paying attention and recognizing what makes the Black girl experience unique compared to Black boys.”
Clearly, Black members of the mental health community aren’t shocked by these findings. Black girls in school are generally seen as more mature and face more discipline compared to white girls, often punished instead of given the help they need. Black girls in particular have a difficult time dealing not just with the racism and how it informs the methods of disciplining them at schools, but the extra layer of colorism that afflicts darker-skinned girls. Black girls are also over-sexualized by misleading narratives found in mainstream media at a young age into young adulthood. There’s also the realization that race and racism are literally being wiped out from our schools’ curriculum, which alienates Black youth who are hyper-aware of the systemic disparities afflicting people who look like them. In general, behavioral disorders are under-detected in Black girls. There’s also the risk they will be casualties of the criminal justice system, the foster care system, and the health care system.
The loneliness and confusion stemming from these experiences make it hard for Black girls to articulate their emotional turbulence, which prevents them from seeking help. Instead, they recoil inward. “For a lot of African-American girls, they’re taught to be strong. They’re taught to keep their feelings inside,” Lauren Carson, executive director of nonprofit Black Girls Smile, told Stat News in 2017. “For young girls, it’s breaking down this misconception that it’s OK to be in a bad relationship. It’s become OK to be sad a lot of the time. It’s been OK to be angry.”
Figuring out exactly why Black girls are killing themselves at a higher rate than even Black boys and certainly their white counterparts will take time, since researchers are playing catch-up. But this churn of isolation, unfair treatment, and neglect is notable.
Schools and other authoritative voices aren’t equipped to deal with the desperate state of Black girls. Aside from the generational and racial trauma, there’s a lack of adequate mental health care to address their unique needs, especially in environments that are wired against their best interests. And if they do have access to mental health care, treating their mental health can’t be a “one size fits all kids” approach.
“The mental health community can certainly do more. We can do more in the way of making sure that services are culturally responsive, that our providers, in particular, are culturally attuned,” Dr. Michael Lindsey, an executive director of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research and incoming dean of the NYU Silver School of Social Work, told Jezebel. “We need them to be ready and trained well to be able to work with Black youth and their families in a way that’s not further stigmatizing or that is perhaps further prohibitive with respect to the connection to that treatment.”
The consensus from Black mental health experts centers around the need for the mental health community to rally around this growing crisis by becoming more of a resource and delegator for schools and parents, who lack the preparation to help their children navigate their lives during tumultuous periods. And as Black parents may not be familiar with the landscape of the mental health community, Lindsey dispelled the myth that only a Black therapist can effectively treat a Black child. “In terms of what Black families might want: I think they typically do want their child to have a therapeutic experience with a person that looks like them and represents their ethnic identity. I think that’s important,” he said. He likewise sent a word of caution to Black parents: “I read a research statistic that only about 4 percent of the behavioral health workforce is actually Black. So it’s a bit of a unicorn.” That, of course, is a problem in itself.
But before even the therapy stage, someone has to recognize when a Black girl is struggling. Francois-Madden explained that there needs to be “safe spaces” at home, school, and locations for extracurricular activities—where Black girls can be vulnerable. “So allowing them to have the space where they can create programs centered around their joy, their liberation, their wellbeing. Allowing them the space to say, ‘Hey, this is what we want,’ because oftentimes it’s the adults that make the decisions,” she said.
But these solutions aren’t yet being pursued, in part, because researchers didn’t study Black girls closely enough until recently. “Researchers are the ones doing the studies. And when you look at that, you wonder what’s the likelihood that a Black researcher has the funding to do research specifically around Black boys and Black girls,” Francois-Madden said. “If it’s a predominately white space of researchers, especially the ones with doctorates, then the way it’s being handled may not look the same, compared to someone who may be able to identify with the struggle of Black adolescents.”
In order to fully grasp why the statistics are so grim, researchers, mental health care practitioners, and teachers who previously viewed the suicide crisis through white-centric lenses will have to essentially begin the process of understanding the complexities of growing up in a country that still needs the reminder of why Black lives matter. Because Black girls are not alright.