Black youth suicide rate doubles since 2014, California health department says

The pandemic is taking a toll on children's mental health and experts are sounding an alarm about a disturbing increase in depression and suicide among Black youth.

Data from the state Department of Public Health shows the suicide rate of young Black Californians has doubled since 2014.

"It has doubled since 2014. It's gone up 80% since 2010," said Dr. George Woods, a neuropsychiatrist, and Chief Science Officer at Crestwood Behavioral Health, "It really is an unusual phenomenon. We typically have not seen that rate of suicide among within the African American child and adolescent community."

Some factors, he says, that can cause more depression are poverty, homelessness, the stress of the pandemic, and exposure to violence.

"You really find children having a baseline of trauma that really no child should have to experience," said Dr. Woods.

Those who work with young people say sadly violence is all too common.

"Any kind of venue when you ask for a show of hands, how many of you know someone who has been killed? And almost every hand will go up in the room.And too frequently it's a family member," said Calvester Stanley, President & CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Oakland.

Stanley says the Boys And Girls Club tries to help children build skills for better mental health through programs like SMART Moves.

"SMART Moves is an acronym: Skills, Mastery And Resilience Training. It's designed to help young people make smarter more deliberate moves when it comes to coping, navigating an increasingly complex and changing world," said Stanley.

"With mental health, it definitely has a stigma with it and more so with people of color," said Martin Lopez Diaz, Junior, a Co-Executive Director for the youth development program Brothers on the Rise in Oakland.

Diaz says the Brothers on the Rise program works with young men of color in Oakland, taking them out into nature and mentoring them to help them build their emotional resilience.

"We do it through social-emotional learning where we're teaching them about what does it look like to have a good relationship with others, how to have empathy with others," said Diaz, "Speaking up, it's okay to share your emotions. It's okay to cry."

Youth advocates say some funding for programming was diverted to other uses for the pandemic. Data on suicide rates during the pandemic have not yet been released. There's hope that people will recognize the need to fund programs that address both the physical and mental health of Black youth.

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"Often children don't have access to the same mental health support that adolescents and adults do," said Dr. Woods. He says one of the most important things a person can do to help a young person experiencing depression is to ask if they've ever thought of hurting themselves.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond unveiled a statewide program Wednesday to help California children deal with mental health challenges. The "Trusted Space" initiative provides educational materials for classrooms on dealing with anxiety and trauma, as well as hour-long training sessions for teachers.


A Trusted Space

Suicide prevention resources from California Department of Public Health

Suicide data in California from state public health dept.