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Suicidality in the Black Community

Content Advisory: This piece contains descriptive content about suicide that may be distressing for some. For support around this topic, please click here.

Possibly the biggest challenge in normalizing dialogue around mental illness and suicidality in the U.S. at large, and the black community in particular, is the invisibility they are cloaked in.  Like racism, it’s much harder for people to rally in fight for something that is not (seemingly) directly in front of them. You cannot generally see or hear a mental illness or always point it out with the naked eye. Someone that is experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideation does fit a generalized description and does not have a specific look. Especially because suicide is not only relevant to those with a mental illness, the number of people that it affects is much higher than realized. 

Though speaking in absolutes can cause more harm than good in numerous circumstances, suicide in all of its variations is something that we absolutely should be talking about more frequently and openly. A 2021 study found that the suicide rate for black boys between ages 15 and 24 rose by nearly 50 percent between 2013 and 2019 and by almost 60 percent among black girls in the same age group. In those same years, the rate decreased for white children and youth. The current highest death rate by suicide is among black Americans ages 25-34. The rate of suicide increased sharply for minorities in the U.S. pre-pandemic and has only continued to rise throughout. 

Let’s name it – suicidality is a crisis in our community. Yet many folks do not know enough or understand enough about suicidality, including what it means to be suicidal (actively or passively), warning signs to look out for, risk factors, and how to help someone in a mental health crisis. This piece aims to do just that: educate and destigmatize. 

What IS a suicidal thought? And are those thoughts “normal”?

A suicidal thought can present in diverse forms. Passive suicidal thoughts are less defined, less specific, and may be fleeting. Someone with passive suicidal thoughts may think about death and dying personally, believe they don’t deserve to live or wish that they could stop living. Generally, there is no plan to carry out suicide with passive thinking. This is when it’s critically important to have a safety plan (a written set of instructions/steps created for yourself as a contingency plan if you begin to have thoughts of self-harm or death) and take other preventative measures, like leaning into support systems or speaking with a professional. Active suicidal thoughts are thoughts of harm or suicide tagged with a specific plan to carry it out. 

Suicidal thoughts, whether passive or active, can happen to anyone and are pretty common. You do not have to have a mental health diagnosis or be clinically depressed. Often, suicidal thoughts signal that you are overwhelmed with emotions or situations you struggle to manage. Many people find that they occur during times of very high stress, like when facing physical/mental health challenges, grief, or living through a global pandemic. All thoughts around self-harm and suicide should be taken seriously.

Warning signs + risk factors of suicidality

What’s important to note is that there is no single cause of suicide. Though not every person who dies by suicide exhibits notable warning signs, most do. This chart includes some of the most common warning signs of suicide, categorized by what a person may talk about, how they may behave, and mood changes they may experience. These can be of particular concern if these signs are related to a painful event, loss, or change.

Killing themselves or wanting to dieIncreased use of drugs/alcoholDepression
Having no reason to liveLooking for ways to kill themselvesLoss of interest
Being a burden to othersActing recklessly**Irritability/rage
Feeling trappedWithdrawing from activitiesSudden or unusual calmness**
Unbearable painIsolating from loved onesExtreme/unusual mood swings
Seeking revengeIncreased or decreased need for sleepAnxiety
Saying goodbye to peopleShame or humiliation
Making preparations**
** acting recklessly (i.e.,  drugs/alcohol, reckless driving, risky/unprotected sex)
** making preparations (i.e.,  giving away possessions, visiting loved ones, making a will)
** sudden or unusual calmness (particularly after something traumatic or impactful)

Risk factors are characteristics or conditions that increase the chance that a person may attempt to take their own life. Risk factors are not necessarily direct causes of suicide. Some common risk factors may include:

  • Mental health disorders (particularly mood disorders, some personality disorders, depression, and anxiety)
  • Major physical or chronic illness
  • Financial difficulties
  • Struggle with drug or alcohol addictions
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • A local cluster of suicide
  • Recent losses
  • Lack of social support + sense of isolation
  • History of trauma or abuse
  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies

How to support someone who may be in crisis (suicidal)

  1. Always start by asking if they are having thoughts of harming or killing themselves, and don’t be afraid to do so. Myth debunked: asking does not increase the risk of someone following through with suicidal thoughts.
  •  Ask if they are having thoughts of suicide.
  • Ask if they have a plan or a means to go through with a plan (i.e., access to pills or weapons)
  • Make sure they know what professionals they can call if need be.
  1. Help keep them safe by either staying physically with them or staying in touch. If possible, remove any means that might be accessible.
  2. Actively listen and validate their experiences. Let them know they are not alone. Let them know you are there and will continue to be until they are safe.
  3. Ask them about their reasons for living or reasons for reconsidering suicide. If they have a safety plan, reference this.
  4. Encourage them to call a professional resource if in immediate danger.
  5. Follow up after the crisis has passed, as research has shown this can reduce the risk of a recurrence.
  6. Get support for yourself.

Should we, as a larger society and community, choose to peel back the cloak of invisibility, we’ll see that people are in pain. We’ll see that the pain is often more than people can bear to face. And hopefully, we’ll see that as a community, we have the power to help simply by speaking the truth and acknowledging that pain.

Additional resources:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) – available 24/7, and you will be connected to a trained professional at a crisis center near you. Chat is also an option.
  • National Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741) – available 24/7 for free crisis support.

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
Order Now

Looking for the UK Edition?
Order here

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Order here