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Published: Monday, 8/20/2001 - Updated: 1 year ago

Health officials note rise in black teen suicides

BY CLYDE HUGHES
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Latrice wanted to die.

The 14-year-old Toledo girl felt as if an anchor were pulling her to the bottom of the sea. She was carrying the weight of her non-custodial father's drug addiction, the need to care for her three half-sisters, and a deteriorating relationship with her mother.

“I didn't think there was anyone there for me,” Latrice said. “I was depressed and just thought everything around me was out of control.”

Latrice is biracial, with dark skin and long, skinny braids that are distinctly African-American. Her close, but volatile, relationship with her African-American father fueled her suicidal tendencies until he died in May from heart problems.

She was 7 when she first tried to kill herself. “I just didn't want to live anymore,” she said.

She is not being identified because she is a juvenile.

Cases like Latrice's are becoming more common. Though suicide is still more prevalent among white teens, the suicide rate for African-American teenagers is increasing so quickly that health officials around the country are worried.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the suicide rate among blacks between 15 and 19 more than doubled from 1980 to 1995, far outstripping the increase among their white counterparts.

The rate for whites was roughly nine for every 100,000 in population in 1980 and increased to about 11 per 100,000 in 1995. For African-Americans, however, the rate jumped from less than four per 100,000 to about eight per 100,000.

“The media doesn't see it yet, and the image most people have of teen suicides are of whites,” said Erika Warner, a case manager with Harbor Behavior Healthcare's Mayfair Achievement Program, who has counseled Latrice this summer.

“It's happening more and more with African-American teenagers, and it's a problem we will need to deal with more often,” Ms. Warner said.

Lucas County has been lucky in regard to African-American suicides in particular and overall teenage suicides in general. According to Lucas County coroner's records, 57 teenagers have committed suicide since 1985, an average of 3.56 a year.

Of those suicides, 10 have been of African-American teenagers, or fewer than one a year. Sandra Towles of the coroner's office said county records show a black Lucas County teen hasn't committed suicide here since Jan. 30, 1998.

She said that does not include teens from Lucas County who may have committed suicide outside the county and were not treated here.

But county officials who watch teen suicide statistics, like their peers elsewhere, are concerned.

“We really have not seen a rash of suicides among adolescents,” said Jackie Martin, executive director of the Lucas County Mental Health Board. “But the risks are still out there, like peer pressure and dysfunctional families.”

She said health professionals have to work harder to identify depression among African-American teens. Ms. Martin said cultural factors often prevent teenagers from seeking help.

“For some kids, it's better to be cool or macho than to admit there may be a problem,” Ms. Martin said. “Kids experience very painful feelings, but they end up displaying their feelings in inappropriate ways.”

Suicide often is overlooked in cases of African-American deaths, said Karen Olnhausen, director of child and adolescent services with the Lucas County mental health board. Ms. Olnhausen said there is a stigma about mental illness in the African-American community and risk factors, such as depression and a feeling of hopelessness that would lead to suicide, are at times not examined or are overlooked. She said deaths from drug overdoses could have been suicides, but often are not categorized as such when they involve blacks.

A 1998 report on the subject of black teen suicides related the increase to African-Americans rising in social class and finding themselves in unfamiliar surroundings.

“Blacks in upwardly mobile families are dealing with more stress and may adopt the coping behaviors of the larger society in which suicide may be more commonly used to deal with hopelessness and depression,” said Tonji Durant of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Latrice said she tried to choke herself after her father met a woman who later became Latrice's stepmother.

Latrice and her father “spent a lot of time together, but when he met [the stepmother], it was like Latrice didn't exist,” her biological mother said. “I think [that attempt] was more for attention, to get her father to recognize her again.”

She said the problems worsened a year ago, when her father began using drugs.

“On clean days, he was very good to her and they spent a lot of time together,” the girl's mother said. “But when he was using, she didn't feel like he loved her.”

She contacted agencies like Rescue Crisis Center and the Mayfair Achievement program in search of help.

Despite increasing cries for help among African-American teens, the suicide rate among young blacks locally remains low, said Dan Rutt of the Lucas County Health Department. Though his office doesn't keep records on teen suicides by race, he said that between 1990 and 1998 the county had 38 teen suicides, an average of 4.2 a year.

“The suicide rate is really all over the place and really doesn't show a real pattern,” he said.

He said that in those nine years, the county recorded a high of eight teen suicides in 1995 and a low of two in 1990 and 1991. In 1998, there were four teen suicides. He said those numbers have been fairly consistent.

He said African-Americans made up 11 percent of all suicides in Lucas County between 1990 and 1999. African-Americans comprise 12.3 percent of the national population and 14.8 percent of the county population.

Ms. Martin said the greatest increase has come in the southern states. Suicides among black youths in the South have risen 223 percent from 1980 to 1995.

A study done on teenage suicides in Georgia last year indicated a variety of factors that could come into play in trying to explain the increase in African-American teen suicides, including firearms, a lack of money for medical help, and denial.

Juanita Easley-Hollis, minority outreach coordinator for the Alliance of the Mentally Ill of Greater Toledo, said there isn't a lot of history on African-American teens and suicide. She said her agency has been seeking information on the subject for a year with only limited success.

After two months in the Mayfair Achievement Program, Latrice is reading better, participating in class instead of falling asleep, and is ready to attend school. More important, she realizes she has a reason to live.

But her biggest breakthrough is her newfound ability to talk about her father more, instead of holding everything in.

“I know there are people depending on me,” Latrice said. “I want to go to high school and get an education. I want to be a person he would be proud of. I think teens need to talk things out instead of holding it inside. There are people willing to listen.”



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