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Why are more African-American children committing suicide?

It’s a daunting, and complex question and this much is clear: Suicide rates among African-American children have nearly doubled in the past 20 years, according to a new study, and some Black congressional leaders are asking President Barack Obama to acknowledge the problem.

For many, the new report comes as a shock: The study, “Suicide Trends Among Elementary School-Aged Children in the United States From 1993 to 2012,” published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, shows that suicides by hanging almost tripled among Back boys while remaining virtually unchanged for whites.

From 1993 to 2012, there were 657 suicides among children ages 5-11. Most of the children were ages 10 or 11. For black boys, however, the rate increased from less than 2 per 1 million to almost 3.5 per 1 million.

Researchers were stunned because it marked the first time a national study found a higher suicide rate for Blacks than for whites of any age group. This is an alarming discovery.

“I was shocked, I’ll be honest with you,” Jeffrey Bridge, an epidemiologist at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, told The New York Times. “I looked at it and I thought, ‘Did we do the analysis correctly? I thought we had made a mistake.”

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) sent a letter to President Obama this month asking the President to create a task joint force with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Education that would also include mental health screening.

“Suicide is truly a tragedy for any family it affects,” said Cleaver in a statement. “There is something especially saddening and shocking when very young children, between the ages of 5 and 11, take their own lives.

“I urge the president and his Cabinet to identify proposals that health care and education providers can implement to deal with this heart-wrenching crisis, and to prevent further loss of life,” he said.

For decades, African-Americans have dismissed mental health problems in families because, in part, some don’t want to confront the stigma associated with mental health, while others don’t feel mental health problems should be discussed outside the home.

According to the study, suicide is a leading cause of death among school-aged children younger than 12 years but little is known about the causes of suicide in this age group.

So Cleaver’s point – and I agree – is that Black child suicide is an under-reported, under-researched, and under-examined phenomenon that deserves serious attention.

“This study also revealed that suicides by hanging roughly tripled among Black boys, while remaining virtually unchanged for white children,” Cleaver said in his letter to Obama.

“It is critical that the CDC and ED respond to these troublesome findings with the utmost urgency,” he added. “The health and well-being of our pre-adolescent constituencies is a crucial component to the overall safety of our country.”

Sean Joe, a professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis, said changing conditions in urban areas have put black children at greater risk.

“I find the rates for children even more troubling, because they are the most vulnerable,” Joe told The New York Times.

While researchers all seem to agree that black child suicides have increased significantly over the years, I agree with Rep. Cleaver that we must move with a sense of urgency to answer an obvious yet perplexing question: Why?

What do you think?

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