Credit: Taylor Glascock for KHN

Rafiah Maxie has been a licensed clinical social worker in the Chicago area for a decade. Throughout that time, she’d viewed suicide as a problem most prevalent among middle-aged white men.

Until May 27, 2020.

That day, Maxie’s 19-year-old son, Jamal Clay—who loved playing the trumpet and participating in theater, who would help her unload groceries from the car and raise funds for the March of the Dimes—killed himself in their garage.

“Now I cannot blink without seeing my son hanging,” said Maxie, who is Black.

Clay’s death, along with the suicides of more than 100 other Black residents in Illinois last year, has led locals to call for new prevention efforts focused on Black communities. In 2020, during the pandemic’s first year, suicides among white residents decreased compared with previous years, while they increased among Black residents, according to state data.

But this is not a local problem. Nor is it limited to the pandemic.

Interviews with a dozen suicide researchers, data collected from states across the country and a review of decades of research revealed that suicide is a growing crisis for communities of color—one that plagued them well before the pandemic and has only been exacerbated since.

Overall suicide rates in the U.S. decreased in 2019 and 2020. National and local studies attribute the trend to a drop among white Americans, who make up the majority of suicide deaths. Meanwhile, rates for Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans—though lower than their white peers—continued to climb in many states. (Suicide rates have been consistently high for Native Americans.)

“COVID created more transparency regarding what we already knew was happening,” said Sonyia Richardson, a licensed clinical social worker who focuses on serving people of color and an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where she researches suicide. When you put the suicide rates of all communities in one bucket, “That bucket says it’s getting better and what we’re doing is working,” she said. “But that’s not the case for communities of color.”

Losing generations

Although the suicide rate is highest among middle-aged white men, young people of color are emerging as particularly at risk.

Research shows Black kids younger than 13 die by suicide at nearly twice the rate of white kids and, over time, their suicide rates have grown even as rates have decreased for white children. Among teenagers and young adults, suicide deaths have increased more than 45% for Black Americans and about 40% for Asian Americans in the seven years ending in 2019. Other concerning trends in suicide attempts date to the ’90s.

“We’re losing generations,” said Sean Joe, a national expert on Black suicide and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “We have to pay attention now because if you’re out of the first decade of life and think life is not worth pursuing, that’s a signal to say something is going really wrong.”

These statistics also refute traditional ideas that suicide doesn’t happen in certain ethnic or minority populations because they’re “protected” and “resilient” or the “model minority,” said Kiara Alvarez, a researcher and psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who focuses on suicide among Hispanic and immigrant populations.

Although these groups may have had low suicide rates historically, that’s changing, she said.

Paul Chin lost his 17-year-old brother, Chris, to suicide in 2009. A poem Chris wrote in high school about his heritage has left Chin, eight years his senior, wondering if his brother struggled to feel accepted in the U.S., despite being born and raised in New York.

Growing up, Asian Americans weren’t represented in lessons at school or in pop culture, said Chin, now 37. Even in clinical research on suicide as well as other health topics, kids like Chris are underrepresented, with less than 1% of federal research funding focused on Asian Americans.

It wasn’t until the pandemic, and the concurrent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, that Chin saw national attention on the community’s mental health. He hopes the interest is not short-lived.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Asian Americans ages 15 to 24, yet “that doesn’t get enough attention,” Chin said. “It’s important to continue to share these stories.”

Kathy Williams, who is Black, has been on a similar mission since her 15-year-old son, Torian Graves, died by suicide in 1996. People didn’t talk about suicide in the Black community then, she said. So she started raising the topic at her church in Durham, North Carolina, and in local schools. She wanted Black families to know the warning signs and society at large to recognize the seriousness of the problem.

The pandemic may have highlighted this, Williams said, but “it has always happened. Always.”

Pinpointing the root causes of rising suicide within communities of color has proven difficult. How much stems from mental illness? How much from socioeconomic changes like job losses or social isolation? Now, COVID may offer some clues.

Recent decades have been marked by growing economic instability, a widening racial wealth gap and more public attention on police killings of unarmed Black and brown people, said Michael Lindsey, executive director of the New York University McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.

With social media, youths face racism on more fronts than their parents did, said Leslie Adams, an assistant professor in the department of mental health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Each of these factors has been shown to affect suicide risk. For example, experiencing racism and sexism together is linked to a threefold increase in suicidal thoughts for Asian American women, said Brian Keum, an assistant professor at UCLA, based on preliminary research findings.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.