As we celebrate Black History Month, we want to take a closer look at mental health within the Black community and provide insight, resources, and ways we support one another. The COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged many of us to take a second look at our mental health and check in with our loved ones. Physical distancing guidelines have drastically changed how we live our daily lives and interact with each other, and newly emerging data paint a worrying picture for those in the Black community.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been collecting national data on suicides occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic and startling trends are surfacing, specifically among Black Americans. Recent CDC data show 15% of Black, non-Hispanic respondents seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days — compared to 8% of Whites and 10.7% of all respondents. The data also show 44% of Black, non-Hispanic respondents reported more than one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom compared to almost 38% of Whites, and 40% of all respondents.
Maryland also took a closer look at suicidality trends and found similar outcomes between the time the pandemic was announced and when public spaces were reopened: From early March to May, suicide deaths among Black residents doubled compared to the same time period during the preceding three years. In contrast, suicide deaths among White Maryland residents during that timeframe fell by half. Chicago and Connecticut saw similar patterns when comparing by race. The data are a troubling glimpse into how mental health trends differ among certain groups during a particularly adverse time.
Unfortunately, we won’t know the full extent of the problem until some time after the COVID-19 pandemic is over because of how the data are collected, but the early numbers are cause for alarm. Researchers cannot say for sure what’s causing an increase in suicides among the Black community, but these studies show why taking a closer look at mental health patterns within minority and vulnerable populations is crucial to seeing the full picture.
How MHFA Can Help
It’s become increasingly important to check in with your loved ones, and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) can help. Talking about suicide can be uncomfortable, but it often helps prevent someone from hurting themself. The MHFA curriculum explains that contrary to popular belief, asking a loved one if they are considering suicide does not encourage them to consider it. In fact, by asking the question, you give them the chance to talk about their problems, and you show them that somebody cares. The curriculum also explains how early intervention is important to prevent suicide.
Paul Nestadt, MD, a psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told the New York Times suicide is an impulsive act; most who decide to do it act within the hour and nearly 25% act within five minutes of making the decision. You can help by having open and honest dialogue, promoting connectedness, listening nonjudgmentally, and having resources on hand.
Mental Health First Aid has a number of blogs and resources to refer to if you or someone you know needs help:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also has fantastic information on how you can help, including key warning signs someone may show if they are contemplating suicide:
The underlying causes of suicide are complicated, and researchers can’t confidently say why this issue has been affecting those in the Black community at higher rates during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many factors that may influence someone’s likelihood of attempting suicide, including genetics, job or financial loss, environmental conditions and major physical illness. But you can help #BeTheDifference for those around you by making sure they feel supported during COVID-19.
For more Black mental health resources, take a look at this list of organizations, books, and social media from PsychHub.
If you or someone you care about feels overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression or anxiety, or like you want to harm yourself or others, call 911.
You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text “MHFA” to 741-741 to talk to a Crisis Text Line counselor.
Bray, M.J.C., Daneshvari N.O., Radhakrishnan I., et al. (2020, December 16). Racial differences in statewide suicide mortality trends in Maryland during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. JAMA Psychiatry. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2774107
Czeisler, M.É.; Lane R.I.; Petrosky E.; et al. (2020, August 14). Mental health, substance use and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 69:1049–1057. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2018). Suicide: What to do when someone is suicidal. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/suicide/in-depth/suicide/art-20044707
Mental Health First Aid USA. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting adults. Washington, DC: National Council for Behavioral Health.
Tingely, K. (2021, January 25). Will the pandemic result in more suicides? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/21/magazine/will-the-pandemic-result-in-more-suicides.html
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. (n.d.). We Can All Prevent Suicide. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/how-we-can-all-prevent-suicide/
PsychHub. (n.d.). Black Mental Health Resources. https://psychhub.com/initiatives/equity/black-mental-health-resources/