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Mental illness and depression don’t discriminate: A look at teens and suicide

Malorie Marshall | 4/17/2014, 3:26 p.m.

The Thursday before Valentine’s Day, the temperature never made it out of the 30s. Wet, half-brown slush covered the ground and another New York City child decided to take her own life.

At a private meeting of school principals last month, Chancellor Carmen Fariña acknowledged that 10 New York City schoolchildren have died by suicide since the beginning of this school quarter in January according to local news reports. Jayah Ram Jackson, who leapt from the roof of her grandmother’s building in February, is one of those 10. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young adults 15-24 years old according to the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education website.

The most recent report from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene states that even if teens do not die by suicide, they are injuring themselves in the process. Young adults 15-24 years old have some of the highest rates for hospitalization due to self-inflicted injuries. Of all age groups across the board, young women ages 15-24 have the highest rates of self-inflicted injury hospitalization per 100,000.

National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide co-founder Donna Barnes says it’s important that adults help teens appropriately share their emotions, especially in the wake of a peer’s suicide.

“When you have a suicide, say, a 14-year-old in middle school, and it’s not addressed properly, students are already vulnerable. You already have about 5 percent thinking about suicide; they aren’t necessarily gonna do it, but they’re vulnerable,” Barnes said in a phone interview. “We need to encourage our kids to talk about their feelings.”

Barnes, who is director of the Suicide Prevention Program at Howard University, founded the organization in the late 1990s, almost a decade after her son Marc killed himself.

“If anyone told me the day before that my son was going to commit suicide, I would have said you’re crazy,” Barnes said. “He was to me, my perfect child.”

Barnes says Marc was away at school and on the baseball team. He went from taking an exam on a Tuesday morning to driving his car into the river.

“Suicide is a behavior, and we can’t control how people behave,” Barnes said. “We can only teach them on strengthening their coping skills, not believing everything they think and being open about their feelings.”

In the most recent numbers from the National Institute of Mental Health, Blacks as a specific group are among the lowest numbers of suicide deaths, with just about five deaths per 100,000 people. For author and licensed psychotherapist Terrie Williams, statistics like that aren’t indicative of the entire story.

“When we don’t deal with our emotional pain and scars and issues, we will do anything to self–medicate,” Williams said in a phone interview. She cited other high-risk behaviors like drug and alcohol consumption, gambling and unprotected sexual intercourse as a method of coping. Williams, 59, who wrote the book “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting,” also feels that adults who grew up dealing with depression and other issues are allowing the same issues to fester generation after generation.