Rising African-American Suicide Rates

May 6, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: He had always gotten straight “A’s.” He played the cymbal in his high school band. He was president of the youth group at his church, but last November, 15-year-old Edwin Jones killed himself. The church that had been so important in young Edwin Jones’ life is led by his father. Rev. Edwin Jones Sr. is also a Chicago police officer. But neither profession prepared him for his son’s death.

REV. EDWIN JONES: My first thought was that this is a dream, you know, this just can’t be happening–not with this child. I thought he was too mature to do something like this. We had a very close relationship, at least I thought.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: His stepmother, Shauna Jones, found Edwin’s body in the basement. He had shot himself with his father’s revolver, though there was so little blood at first Jones thought her stepson was merely asleep.

SHAUNA JONES: He was such a neat child. When he dressed, he was well groomed. He always cared about his hair and the way he looked, and his appearance was always a must. So when he shot himself, he even shot himself neatly so that the blood wouldn’t show. I guess he thought he would be buried in that suit.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: While suicide was once relatively rare among black teenagers, a study just released by the Center for Disease Control shows over the last two decades it has increased dramatically. The study found that while the suicide rate for white youth is still higher than for African-American youth, the rate of suicide for African-Americans is rising much faster. From 1980 to 1994, the suicide rate for whites age 15 to 19 went up 22 percent, while the rate for 15 to 19 year old blacks increased by 146 percent.

DR. CARL BELL: We should be worried about the increases; they are substantial.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Psychiatrist Carl Bell runs a community mental health center on the South side of Chicago. He has found that in Chicago the suicide rate for young blacks is even higher than for whites.

DR. CARL BELL: The common denominator is a major depression or psychiatric illness and a feeling of not being wanted or having a place in society, a sense of alienation. And when you have those two combinations, throw in alcohol and guns, you’ve got a potential suicide victim.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Bell, the co-author of a book on adolescent suicide and homicide, says poor black kids may kill themselves because they see their lives as hopeless, while more middle class black kids have different pressures.

DR. CARL BELL: For the middle class black child, they’re sort of marginal in-between the poor working class black world and in-between the white professional world, and they don’t fit in either world to some extent. So they’re also at risk for getting a depression and then being alienated and isolated.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Edwin Jones had not picked up any sign of depression in his son, but Shauna Jones worried about the pressures Edwin put himself under. When she picked up his report card, she was surprised to see that for the first time in his life he had failed a course.

SHAUNA JONES: And when I went to his room, there was a picture of him in the middle of the bed with a note and I read the note, and when I read the note, it said, “By the time you receive this note, you’re gonna know I received an F, and I’d rather be dead than to get a whooping.”

DR. CARL BELL: The studies show that parents, even when the child delivers a suicide note, parents tend to deny that their child is at risk.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And when a child does commit suicide, parents are often left without answers.

REV. EDWIN JONES: Why he did it, I don’t know.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As you look back now, you’ve had a little bit of time, can you come up with any reasons why? Did you think he was depressed? What have you thought about it now?

REV. EDWIN JONES: I really don’t–I really haven’t–no other thoughts other than why. I haven’t pieced anything together. I’m still contemplating on it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The suicide rate for young girls and women is lower than the rate for males, regardless of race, though females attempt suicide more often than males. And again the rates for African-American girls are rising faster than the rates for white girls. This teenager is in treatment and did not want to be identified. She tried to kill herself last summer.

FEMALE TEEN: I shot myself with a 44.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And how did you live?

FEMALE TEEN: No one ever knows.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What was your state of mind? What were you thinking when you tried to commit suicide?

FEMALE TEEN: Me not getting along with my mother. Me not really talking to my father–just felt that I wasn’t in the right place. I wasn’t–I wasn’t belonging there; I shouldn’t have been there, and no one cared, so that was something I felt that I had to do.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And like many poor inner city black kids, she faced heavy peer pressure.

FEMALE TEEN: When you’re in a gang, people are telling you to do one thing and when you really don’t want to, you feel that the only way to get out is suicide.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Both this young woman and Edwin Jones used guns their fathers kept at home. Dr. Bell says the increased availability of guns is one of the key reasons for the rise in suicide. But Rev. Jones says his son knew about gun safety.

REV. EDWIN JONES: I had taught him how to use the gun for protection when I’m not around.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So you don’t regret having the gun in the house?

REV. EDWIN JONES: No, I don’t regret having the gun there. It hurts–the way he used it. I think I taught him well, spending time with him at the range, and spending time with him, showing him how to assemble and disassemble it. And it was partially disassembled.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Bell says another reason for the upswing is the lack of effective treatment programs.

DR. CARL BELL: The effective treatment is to identify the child that’s suicidal and treat them for their depression and to reestablish their support system. The problem is, is that when you look into the black community, the biggest proportion of which is poor, you don’t see social infrastructure or health care infrastructure that’s going to deliver that service.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: This teenager did find good treatment programs. After seven months of individual and group therapy, plus medication, she says she would not attempt suicide again, and she has this advice for other teens who are troubled.

FEMALE TEEN: You shouldn’t try to kill yourself. I feel that you should at least talk it over with someone, get some kind of help. Someone is out there to help you, and they’re holding out a hand, but all you need to do is grab on to it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Crixell Suteria is worried others won’t take that advice. She was a good friend and fellow band member of Edwin Jones and was shocked by his death. In a paper to be published next month Dr. Bell says suicides often occur in clusters, one young person’s suicide prompting others. Crixell became depressed but did not attempt suicide after Edwin’s death. But says she worried about many of her classmates.

CRIXELL SUTERIA: A lot of young people that were his friends that had become really depressed, they went to counselors telling them they felt like committing suicide, that it was their fault. One young man actually thought it was his fault because the young man that committed suicide actually told him that he was going to do it. But he said it in a joking manner, so he thought he was kidding, and he felt like it was all his fault.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It has been the Joneses’ faith that has sustained them through their painful ordeal, and Rev. Jones has some advice for parents.

REV. EDWIN JONES: The only thing I could say to parents at this juncture is: just love your children to death, be that close to them that you can actually feel what they’re thinking and feel what they’re feeling. I thought Ed and I were that close; apparently I was wrong.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Jones family and the True Vine Church Congregation have plans to fund a college scholarship in memory of Edwin.