Suicide isn’t just a ‘white people thing’

By Kimya N. Dennis, The Conversation US | Source: The St. Louis American

As a sociologist and criminologist, I often do community outreach on mental health prevention. I urge organizations and programs to avoid “one size fits all” approaches. There are many ways that mental health issues can impact individuals, depending upon race and ethnicity, gender identity, sexual identity, religion and more.

But I have found mental health conditions and suicide are often still considered a “white people’s problem.” When I speak with African Americans and non-white Hispanics – groups that are often overlooked by the mental health community – I’m often asked why I’m “wasting time” addressing race, ethnicity and other cultural variations.

In some ways, this is not surprising. Whites make up more than 70 percent of the total U.S. population and have the highest rate of suicide relative to population size.

In the African-American community, there’s a tendency to label suicide and mental health conditions as “crazy” or evidence that you aren’t praying enough. People in this culture, as well as Hispanic, Asian and American Indian communities, are less likely to acknowledge the possibility of having a health condition or seek mental health services. Or, as some commentators and academics have said, suicide is seen as a “white thing” – “African Americans don’t ‘do’ suicide.”

Unfortunately, despite the existence of culturally specific support systems, many cultures still experience silence and shame around mental health issues. This is reflected in the care that’s provided as well. Based on false assumptions, many health professionals and health services end up, intentionally or unintentionally, catering to predominantly white consumers.

The problem is partly due to data.

Whites have a suicide rate of 18.5 per 100,000 people, leading to the highest total number of suicides for any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. Whites also comprise the majority of membership in suicide prevention organizations and have greater access to resources needed to seek out mental health services.

Meanwhile, African Americans make up about 12 to 13 percent of the U.S. population and are underrepresented in suicide data. Data suggest that African Americans have approximately 6 percent of the recorded rate of suicide compared to whites. But this data is likely incomplete – thanks to deaths that have been misclassified.

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