Confronting the Black-Youth Suicide Crisis
with David Johns of the National Black Justice Coalition
Suicide rates among black youth ages 10 to 19 are increasing faster than any other racial or ethnic group.
David Johns of the National Black Justice Coalition discusses how advocates are working to raise awareness and combat the crisis of black youth suicide in America.
Feb 03, 2020
Paul L: According to a recent report, suicide is the second leading cause of death for black children ages 10 to 19, outpacing every racial and ethnic group. Hi, welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Paul Lisnek. In early 2019, the Congressional Black Caucus established an emergency task force to study suicide among African-American youth. The task force findings were presented to the CBC in December of 2019, in a report titled "Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America." With me to discuss the report and its implications for students, schools, and our country is David J. Johns. He's the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. David, it's good to see you. –
David J: Good to see you as well, Paul. –
Paul L: Well, It's good to see you. But I'm troubled by this topic.
David J: Yeah.
Paul L: What is it... When I talk about these young people aged 10 to 19. What is going on that's so bad?
David J: Our babies are screaming for our attention and they are demanding that we find ways to support them. And in particular for black children, we have to do the double work of dealing with the stigma that often accompanies conversations or people seeking support with regard to mental health and trauma. And then we also have to do a better job of acknowledging that for too many of our babies who are forced to go to school every day during the week, that those places are just not safe for them.
Paul L: Is the trouble focused in on teachers, administration, those kinds of things? Or is it -- or maybe it's combination. Is there not enough support from the parents at home?
David J: It's D -- All of the above. Right, a child's first. and most important teacher are his or her parents. But children also learn and develop and grow in communities. And so what we know and one of the biggest findings from the report is that all adults, right, this is one of their -- There are no lay people in this effort. We all have a responsibility to do more to ensure that we are aware of the warning signs. The way that young people are showing that they're dealing with mental health trauma or otherwise seeking support. We have to do a better job of responding when young people are asking for help and saying that they're dealing with depression or things that might otherwise lead them to think about, or contemplate suicide. And we also have to do a better job of equipping educators and schools in particular with resources that can deal with bullying, so that it can deal with the stress that young people face that might be exacerbated by technology or the Internet, or more generally, so that they can find ways to deal with the things that invariably stress all of us out on a daily basis.
Paul L: So there is legislation which is attempting to combat suicide, called pursuing equity in mental health. The act from 2019. I have memories of Representative Patrick Kennedy when he was in Congress working with this very same kind of legislation.
David J: Yeah.
Paul L: Can you just fill us in the development? Where do things stand?
Johns: Yes, so really thankful for the leadership of Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, who chaired the emergency task force that was led by the Congressional Black Caucus that allowed us to produce this report. And to be clear, this is a continuation of policies that have been pushed by the Democratic Party in particular to ensure that we have access to full and encompassing health care. And so, I smiled when you started to talk about Congressman Kennedy because I worked for Senator Ted Kennedy before he passed. And the Affordable Care Act is one of the things that he cared most about. And that was in part to ensure that we all have access to the mental health support that we need. It's too often the case that, especially for black folks, we're just taught to suck it up now, like smile now, cry later about it or otherwise, we think about adages where people say just leave it at the church on Sunday. It's important for us to not only do that, but to have access to culturally competent mental health providers so that we have all the support we need in order to thrive.
Paul L: This is so critical, but as I listened to you, one of the things that strikes me is you got to change people's attitudes.
David J: Yeah, that that is first and foremost, right. And it's somebody who is -- anyone who knows me knows that I care deeply about our children. I am an educator, first and foremost, educators do God's work. But one thing that is so important for me and that was really important as a representative of the National Black Justice Coalition on the work group was ensuring that we found ways to talk to educators, and we found ways to connect with parents who love their children, who want the best for their children. But who simply don't know, right. Don't know what to look for. Don't know where to go when they need additional sources of care and really don't don't know how to connect a community so that we can do a better job of supporting all of our babies.
Paul L: So, you know, you just said something. If I was a viewer watching this, I might say, "Look for? Tell me, what do I look for?"
David J: Yes. So what's interesting about this is that this is one of the new items in the report is that a lot of what researchers and medical practitioners tell us to look for are things that show up in kids generally. And so it's them being disaffected, them not being a part of groups, them being moody, things that again, a parent of a 16 year old might just simply say those are signs of a young person being a young person.
Paul L: So can you take it to the next step and say, "Okay, here's how to know that your young child is having these issues?" It's not just what every kid goes through.
David J: Yeah, I think the most effective way to know is to ask, right, it's to invite young people... Well, to do two things. One is to create environments where young people feel safe sharing. Right. We cannot expect young people to talk about things that are otherwise associated with stigma or that they might otherwise think that they should feel bad about if they otherwise aren't invited into spaces where they're comfortable. And then the second thing is for us to invite them into conversations and then to listen, not listen, to tell them that we've done all this work so that they don't have to deal with these challenges, or that we feel some kind of way as a result of them having to deal with these challenges, but listening so that we can learn what their needs are and then find ways to connect them to sources of care.
Paul L: And finally, I just want to say so for parents who are watching and may have some of these concerns. You said, "Hey, talk to your child." And I get that, but sometimes maybe it's difficult to have that conversation. Any suggestions for a parent to say, "Let me make it easier for you?"
David J: I would say that it's important for us to acknowledge that that which is difficult is still important for us to do. And I say that to say that this is not going to be easy. We live in a society that doesn't make it acceptable for us often to talk about the problems that we have or the things that are ailing us, and particular, young people are sometimes told to just grin and bear it and just to be resilient and to overcome it. And so what I'm saying is that it's really important for us to sit in these spaces and talk about things that are otherwise shrouded with shame and stigma. So that, again, everybody can learn and develop and be happy, healthy, and whole. So it's not going to be easy. But if you start the conversation and you lead with love, I'll show you that it'll be easier than having a conversation after your baby is no longer here.
Paul L: People want to learn more about this, where can they go?
David J: They can visit us @NBJContheMove. They could also look up our campaign arm, Nigel Shelby. Nigel Shelby is a 15-year-old black boy who died by suicide in Huntsville, Alabama, in part because the adults in that space failed him. They failed to create a community where his differences were celebrated in the way that all of us are different. And so I hope that people will learn more about Nigel Shelby, the young people that have died as a result of suicide, so that we can learn from them and prevent any other young people from having to experience something similar in the future.
Paul L: David J. Johns from the National Black Justice Coalition. Thank you for the work you do. Thank you for the lives you save.
David J: Thank you for making space. -Thank you for watching. From our great conversations with leaders in your community and across our country, go to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Paul Lisnek. Thanks for watching.