FRANKLIN - Approximately 200 community members, politicians, teachers and family members met at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens recently for a panel discussion on a disturbing, emerging trend:  The increase in black youth suicide, especially among boys between the ages of 5-11.

Spearheaded by Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12th), First Baptist’s Pastor and former New Jersey Secretary of State DeForest “Buster” Soaries Jr. provided the welcome and also participated in facilitating the event. The Congressional Black Caucus and Emergency Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health presented the public forum with black peer advocates, family members, mental health providers and elected officials providing diverse perspectives.

The Task Force was created to address the increase in black youth suicide. According to date from a Nationwide Children’s Hospital 2018 study, boys between the ages of 5 to 11 are twice as likely to attempt as their white counterparts.  While statistics show that young black females are more likely to attempt, young black males are more likely to complete suicide. We know that suicide rates in every age group, gender, socioeconomic status, educational level and state in the nation are on the rise.

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So why black boys specifically?

The panel, moderated by Brittany Jean-Louis, founder of A Freeman’s Place Counseling, included: Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-7th District); Michellene Davis, Esq., executive vice president of Robert Wood Johnson; T-Kea Blackman of the peer recovery podcast, “Fireflies Unite with Kea,” Franklin Township Councilwoman Crystal Pruitt; and Kimme Carlos, executive director of the Urban Mental Health Alliance.

These experts with lived experience identified specific risk factors and life experiences as pertaining to the black experience that cause and recycle generational traumas that can be silently carried through life. Growing up in America and discovering that “growing up black” is a different and harsher experience, filtered through a legacy of enslavement, the panelists said. Positive role model representation can be lacking, which presents further ramifications.

Black and brown communities are more likely to have a higher propensity for Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES (Kaiser-CDC, 1997), and be uninsured or underinsured, with poorer health outcomes and higher rates of stigma. The acknowledged beauty of resilience, strength, religion and community, while imperative protective factors, can also not allow the expression of vulnerability or emotion, for fear it will be viewed as weakness or incompetence.

Panelists said that due to systemic oppression and lack of opportunity, children are often raised in less-than-ideal situations, grappling with the unaddressed and unexplained emotional responses that may come along with their living situation. 

Panelists noted the impacts that the prison system, drug problems and single-parent households can have in increasing the frequency of parentifying young black children. Developmental milestones may be skipped because children are forced to act as teenagers or young adults, a head of household in their own. Young black children may be expected to be providers: strong, reliable and unwavering. No time to work through emotions or pain – you are now “A Man.”

Special considerations require special responses. The panelists were asked: What can be done about suicide in our black youth? Creating the Task Force and panel in itself was the first step: acknowledging that this is a phenomenon currently occurring and increasing in severity is another.  Participating in conversation and awareness spreads education and acceptance, reducing stigma, and leads to further action.

Panelists discussed solutions such as legislative bills currently in the works to require mandatory mental health programming in schools.  Mental health first aid training is a national, evidenced-based course designed to educate participants on how to recognize the symptoms of someone who might be in crisis and how to interact and de-escalate: www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), is a resource for conversation and connection, including, support groups: www.nami.org.  Additional solutions included PerformCare (if under the age of 21) to get connected to youth behavioral health services, regardless of insurance status: www.performcarenj.org. 

Social/emotional learning programs in schools, acknowledging that children’s feelings are valid, and accessing mental health treatment in addition to spirituality will not fix a broken system, but will begin the healing of a hurting child. The conversation did not solve the issues at hand, of course, but it spread education, conversation and unity. This is how we can give children the opportunity to come out of the darkness.

For more information on youth or adult mental health services contact the Somerset County Department of Human Services at 908-704-6300. 

Meg Isbitski, LSW, DRCC, is Somerset County Assistant Mental Health Administrator/AFN Coordinator