New York City Councilmember Rita Joseph has introduced a bill to address the rise of suicide rates among Black girls and boys, and other racial ethnic groups, an “alarming” situation that’s persisted for the past two decades nationwide. 

“The introduction of 988 represents a major step forward in mental healthcare. As an elected official, I have an obligation to ensure that our communities, especially our young people, are aware of this invaluable resource,” said Joseph, who chairs the education committee in the city council.

The bill, Int. No. 610, requires the city’s Department of Education (DOE) to provide information on the new National Suicide Prevention Hotline, or 988, as a method of suicide prevention. The 988 number specifically routes callers to the lifeline instead of having to dial 911 and possibly escalate a person’s situation with a police presence. Callers are connected to counselors at a crisis center that are trained to de-escalate or listen to a person’s distress. The previous phone number for the lifeline was 1-800-273-8255, which remains active.

Psychologist Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble is the founder of the African American Knowledge Optimizing Mindfully-Healthy Adolescents (AAKOMA) Project. Since 1999, the project has been a national study on the mental health of youth of color and has surveyed almost 3,000 young people of color ages 13 to 25.

In the 2022 study of youth of color, AAKOMA found that among the Black, Native American, Latin/Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial adolescents they surveyed, 22% engaged in self-injurious behavior like cutting, 27% had suicidal ideation, and 18% had attempted suicide at least once.

“Among our Black young people, we found that they were most likely of all the young people in our study to report having a plan for suicide,” said Breland-Noble. “Any one child expressing that they don’t want to live anymore is too many kids, but when you’re seeing some of the rates in our study it is frankly quite alarming.” 

Joseph said that when her bill is passed, it will make sure that young people know that they have somewhere to turn to when they’re facing adversity. “This bill is about giving our young people information and knowledge, and as we all know, knowledge is power,” said Joseph.

Justina Schlund, senior director of Content and Field Learning at Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in Chicago, said that emotional and mental wellness heavily influences students’ ability to learn and their healthy development, and throughout the pandemic there was a disproportionate impact on children of color.

Dr. Michael Lindsey, the dean and Paulette Goddard professor of Social Work at NYU Silver School of Social Work, studies child and adolescent mental health. He also helped create the report “Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America.”

Lindsey said that the COVID-19 crisis in high poverty-impacted communities has led to “enduring struggles,” such as loss of life, disruption of quality of life, job displacement, and a disconnection of kids and adolescents from schools. Even though it’s two years removed from the initial pandemic, students are still adjusting or falling behind engendering a battle with depression, anxiety, and trauma, he said. 

In the AAKOMA study, depression was most severe among Native American, Latino/Hispanic, and Black youth while anxiety was highest among Latino/Hispanic youth. The symptoms of depression most often presented as kids “being tired and having low energy.” 

“When you think about how our young people of color, that fatigue that you’re seeing that’s showing up in class––they’re putting their head on the desk and slumping down in chairs––that’s not necessarily seen as a child with depression,” said Breland-Noble. “That might be perceived as a child who’s lazy and disinterested.” 

For anxiety, a feeling of being worried or nervous was universal, but each group showed slightly different signs as well. Black youth were more likely to struggle with decision-making and worry about bad things happening as a result of anxiety, while Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) and Native American youth tended to be avoidant of worrying situations, said the study. 

Lindsey posits that a contributing factor to the rising rates of youth of color is a tendency towards punishment of certain behaviors rather than mental health and behavioral support for kids. The school environment has to understand the nuanced presentations for kids that would warrant them a connection to mental health treatment, he said.

“There was a Black kid that I worked with who was very depressed,” said Lindsey. “He said ‘when I’m sad or depressed, I feel like knocking someone’s head off so they can feel how I feel.’ And so if that kid goes and does that, he’s going to be pushed out. Suspended, expelled from school. Not saying it didn’t warrant that, but did anyone along the way ask him what he was sad about and can we address that.”

Breland-Noble agreed that access to care is pivotal and that technological features of the 988 Lifeline, like texting, would benefit young people. But, a service lifeline necessitates cultural competency, especially with youth experiencing racial traumas or the impacts of systemic racism.

“In some communities of color there’s a healthy fear that if the police are dispatched to deal with a mental health crisis, that could have a devastatingly negative impact,” said Breland-Noble. 

Lindsey fully supports the “promise” of the 988 Lifeline for providing a different type of response to mental health crises rather than relying on police. He criticized the U.S. for chronically underfunding mental health services and hopes that access will increase. 

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here: bit.ly/amnews1

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