On. Dec. 2, 9-year-old McKenzie Adams hanged herself in her grandmother’s bathroom in Linden, Alabama. Weeks earlier, in November, Maddie Whittsett, also 9, took her own life in her bedroom closet in Birmingham. Months before that, 12-year-old Stormiyah Denson-Jackson died by suicide at her Washington, D.C., boarding school. And late last fall Rylan Hagan, 11, hanged himself from his bunk bed in D.C.
The most recent death, McKenzie, came after the little girl was bullied mercilessly. The bright fourth-grader told her family, but the school did nothing about the children who called McKenzie black and ugly and bombarded her with evil notes day-in and day-out for months. Something in McKenzie snapped that day, and led her to believe her life was not worth living.
The last year has been filled with stories like McKenzie’s, those of Black children dying at their own hands. Naturally, many are shocked by the tragic headlines because the thought of someone so young, so innocent and pure ending their lives is unsettling. But the Black community should not be so surprised. As Black children, we often hear grown-ups dismiss suicide, depression, and any inkling of emotional instability as “white people” stuff. And we carry that idea with us well into adulthood, sometimes allowing our unaddressed pain to destroy us from the inside out.
But McKenzie, Maddie, Stormiyah and Rylan didn’t make it to adulthood. The despair they had known in their short lives was enough for them to not want to live them anymore. And their deaths represent a heartbreaking statistical trend. The number of Black kids under 18 dying by suicide has risen 71 percent in the last 10 years. And the suicide rate for Black children ages 5 to 11 has increased dramatically since the 1990s — Black boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 12 are dying by suicide at double the rate of white children their age.
Additionally, rates of depression, anxiety and behavior disorders in Black kids have doubled in recent decades, according to another study.
These statistics are new, though, and that’s likely because past research in the field has largely focused on suicide among white people. Thus, researchers need to account for socioeconomic factors when it comes to Black children’s deaths, like poverty, risk of violence, racism and limited access to adequate resources — particularly culturally specific resources — in underserved neighborhoods.
And perhaps most importantly, the Black community needs to do away with the notion that suicide isn’t a problem for us. Suicide is not a “white thing.” It is prevalent in the Black community and it’s taking our children. Our refusal to acknowledge it as a problem only leaves us unprepared in the face of it.
“If there is a belief that black children do not kill themselves, there’s no reason to use tools to talk about suicide prevention,” Rheeda L. Walker, a psychology professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, has said.
A vital part of Black liberation and Black well-being is to prioritize mental and emotional health. This is done by seeking professional help for ourselves, for our friends, families, and for our children. Although faith can (and often does) play a large role in helping with depression and mental health issues, we cannot simply “pray it away” or rely on clergy members and well-meaning loved ones who have no professional training in the area. We have to dispel the notion that Black people who seek professional help are crazy or weak. That ideology will only lead to our demise.
“African Americans are at increased risk for all kinds of things,” Lisa Horowitz, a National Institutes of Health staff scientist and pediatric psychologist, has said. “This is no exception.”
But suicide isn’t the only result of disregarding mental and emotional health. This lack of care often leaves our Black girls vulnerable and susceptible to evils like sex trafficking, domestic violence and sex abuse. When we think of these forms of violence, we usually imagine them as happening abruptly. But victims of sex trafficking, sex abuse, domestic violence and the like are often coerced over time. Coercion tactics carried out by abusers work best on the vulnerable.
Along with socioeconomic factors that leave Black girls vulnerable to sex trafficking, isolation, emotional distress, mental illness, and lack of social support also make them more susceptible. Ignoring emotional and mental health within the Black community only opens dangerous doors and puts our already-disadvantaged children at greater risk of harm.
Our Black children are killing themselves. To save our babies and ourselves, we must acknowledge suicide and mental health issues within the Black community. Not only that, we must also take steps to address them and work to provide ourselves with adequate resources to ensure our well-being and wholeness. It’s too late for McKenzie, and Maddie, and Stormiyah and Rylan. But it does not have to be too late for the millions of Black girls and boys who are, as we speak, suppressing their despair, falling silent, and reducing their pain to “white people” stuff.
Let’s talk about suicide. But more than that, let’s do something about it.