Q&A: Professor discovers rising suicide rate for African-American youth
While earning her PhD at Florida State University, associate professor of psychology Rheeda Walker discovered that the suicide rate for African-Americans was rising.
In her most recent study, “A Longitudinal Study of Racial Discrimination and Risk for Death Ideation in African American Youth,” Walker interviewed a group of African-American children at age 10, and again at age 12, as part of a longer study that began in the 1990s.
Walker found that one-third of the children thought about death and many of them had experienced discrimination.
A 2015 study in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics found the suicide rate among black boys under 11 years of age doubled from 1993 to 2012.
The Cougar sat down with Walker, who also established the Culture, Risk, and Resilience Lab, to discuss the difficulties of her research and what changes are needed to prevent suicides.
The Cougar: Could you summarize the findings of your study?
Rheeda Walker: Generally, we found that over the course of time, after controlling for a number of different stressors, age and other key variables, experiencing discrimination was related to thinking about death in pre-adolescent African-American youth.
TC: What led you into this area of psychology research, and why is it important?
RW: That’s an interesting question. It’s been a good number of years now, actually a couple decades. I was interested in mental health more broadly for African-Americans because my thinking was that there were some risk and protective factors at play that weren’t previously being investigated in a lot of the mainstream studies. I wasn’t interested in suicide at the time—I was interested in depression, but there wasn’t anyone who was engaged in depression research. So I thought, “depression, suicide, that’s related, sure.” As we’re supposed to do, I looked at the literature to see what the literature looked like for African-Americans. What I found was that the suicide rate was increasing exponentially, but no one was looking at any of the risk factors or protective factors.
TC: What are some unique risk and protective factors for African-Americans?
RW: One of the things I’ve hypothesized and found evidence for that’s pretty consistent is ethnic identity. If someone has a positive sense of who they are as African-Americans, and also I’ve found for Hispanic-Americans and other marginalized persons, having a positive sense of who they are as a member of that group can be protective. In one of my interesting studies some years ago, we found similar levels of depression and anxiety for white, non-Hispanic and black university students. Similar levels of depression and anxiety, but only for African-Americans did that positive ethnic identity buffer the effects of stress on anxiety and depression.
TC: If you had interviewed older children or young adults, how do you think the findings would have been different or similar?
RW: I wonder if we would have had more suicide disclosure if the children were older. They were 10 years old in the first wave and 12 years old in the second wave. We imagine that 10– and 12–year-olds aren’t necessarily thinking so much about their own death or killing themselves even though the suicide rate is going up in that age group. About a third of the sample had thought about death. One percent of the sample had thought about suicide. I think that if we interviewed 15– or 16–year-olds, or 18-year-olds, we would have seen significantly more suicide ideation.
TC: Did anything about your research surprise you?
RW: Usually, there is something. I think this data probably saddened me more than anything. Even though I had my typical research questions, I tend to work with adults. I focus on emerging adults–college-age students up to working age adults. This was my first time looking at data for younger African-Americans. This research was more saddening than surprising because I have actually found associations between perceived discrimination and suicide ideation.
Getting resources for the children will be important for them at some point. If a third of the sample of 12-year-olds is thinking about death, there must be something going on. Even if they don’t attempt suicide, some of their schoolwork and relationships with family and friends will be affected. It’s worth following up to ask explicit questions about how they’re doing.
One thing that has always concerned me is I’ve heard African-American adolescents say, “Oh, black people don’t kill themselves.” Then they become even more marginalized if they’re feeling suicidal, but don’t think they can talk to anyone because that’s not something they’re supposed to do. And that’s unfortunate.
TC: What would you suggest to people who are in the position to implement those kinds of resources?
RW: The most important thing I like to talk about is being nonjudgmental. If someone hears someone else say they’re thinking about suicide, their first thought is to say, “Oh, no you’re not,” and minimize it, or “It’s not that big of a deal, your difficulties are just whatever.” Instead, say, “Wow, tell me what’s going on,” and try to offer support and problem-solve.
When people are overwhelmed, one of the most difficult things to do is problem-solve. It helps to have someone who is there to listen and say, “I can understand how you might be thinking about harming yourself or killing yourself, just tell me what’s going on and let’s see if we can work this out together.” Be a good listener, be supportive and understanding, and don’t be dismissive at all.
Maybe even ask: “Did you have a plan?” If they say, “Yeah, I was going to take some pills,” ask if they have them and where they are so you can remove those things and remove those means. When someone is in crisis, they’re not problem-solving. They’re not thinking about the future. It helps to have someone who cares who can intervene on their behalf, even if they think it’ll make the person mad.
TC: Most of your research focuses on young African-American adults. Do you think that if you spoke with other minorities that face discrimination, the results would be similar?
RW: We’ve actually begun to collect that data. We’re just in the preliminary stages of analyzing that. One of the reasons I focus on African-Americans was almost out of necessity, being in places where there wasn’t as much ethnic diversity. Since I’ve been in Houston, and we know the suicide attempt rate is relatively high for Latinas, but not necessarily Asian-American men and women, we wanted to look at different groups.
Do I expect to see similar things? I’m not sure. I don’t expect the impact of discrimination to be similar across the groups, because I do think there are some groups that experience difficulties the others don’t experience. I do still expect the experience of being marginalized to have adverse consequences.