Data shows concerning rise in the number of Black teen girls taking their own lives

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- As a licensed marriage and family therapist, Jaynay C. Johnson didn't have to see the latest research to know there was a problem that Black teens were facing.

"I was actually waiting for the research to catch up with things I've seen," said the woman who's known as the teen therapist for her therapy practice, focusing on treating teens in the Philadelphia area.

Johnson sees proof every day that Black youth are struggling, especially those surrounded by violence in Philadelphia.

"It's really just bubbling over and a lot of the teens feel like they just have nothing to live for," she said.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Black youth had a significant upward trend in suicide.

Researchers looked at data from 2003 to 2017, and the group with the biggest change: Black teen girls, specifically 17-year-olds. That group had a 6.6% increase in suicides, annually.

Experts say there's no one way to tell who's struggling. The signs of a mental health struggle in Black girls may present differently from other groups.

"Girls are quiet and they're going through something. There are times when girls have outward attitudes and they have something going on," said Johnson.

The 6abc Data Journalism Team found that from 2014 to 2019, the suicide rate among Black teen girls increased 65% compared to white teen girls, which increased by about 16%.

"The symptoms of depression often look different for Black youth," said Johnson. "They often identify physical ailments. Their stomach hurts."

Johnson says parents, guardians, teachers and other adults and friends can listen for key indications that a child may be struggling.

"One of the things you should listen for is (a teen saying ), 'I don't want to be here anymore,'" she said. "If they're giving away items. If you know they love a teddy bear and all of a sudden they give it to their little sister."

It's a subject that Ericka Arthur of Germantown does her best to address on her YouTube show, "Inspiration with E." She hopes it'll foster more conversation on why suicide rates among Black children are rising.

"You want to take into consideration everything from economic to education disparities," said Arthur who also volunteers with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Philadelphia chapter.

"I always say asking someone how they're doing and waiting for a response with direct eye contact," she said.

Johnson says if parents listen closely, including to the messages conveyed in the music a child is listening to, they must also be willing to react when their teen behaves in a way that's concerning.

"If your child is saying they want to harm themselves in that given moment, take action," she said, suggesting taking the child to a crisis center focused on children.

Arthur said it's going to take entire communities coming together to address the issue of suicide in Black youth.

"You're dealing with teenagers who don't have the language for what they're feeling," she said.

Johnson agrees, adding that teens can give lots of clues into how they're feeling if adults are willing to consistently listen. She hopes it will remove the stigma associated with suicide in the Black community.

"We have to be open and listen to our teenagers as they express things that are bothering them," she said.

For anyone who's struggling or grieving, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is holding a free event Sunday night. The Out of the Darkness Walk is open to all. It starts at 7 p.m. Sunday at the art museum. Registration information can be found here: https://supporting.afsp.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.event&eventID=7544
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