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As The Suicide Rate For Black Teens Skyrockets, Students Rise To Meet The Challenge

Tiffany Hall was attending North Carolina Central University in 1995 when she received some devastating news. Candice, an 18-year old college student and close family friend, had killed herself.

"We saw her all the time. [She'd ask] 'What's your momma cooking?' She'd come down and have dinner with us or after school," Hall said. "We always hung out."

In the years since, stories like Candice's have become all too common.

According to a recent report from NC Child, the rate of suicide among black teenagers has grown to more than twice that of whites. That's despite the fact that blacks of all ages are still less likely to commit suicide than whites of all ages - although that gap is narrowing. 

Since 2001, the rate of suicide among African-American male teenagers has increased by 60 percent; for African-American females it has increased by 182 percent, according to a report in the Journal of Community Health.

"If we don’t get a handle on the increase in suicide among African Americans, I can foresee a time when (the overall rate of) African Americans can surpass those of whites," said Victor Armstrong, a board member at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "I think part of it is because, in the African-American community, we have not accepted it yet as our issue."

Between 2015 and 2017, North Carolina was one of the top 10 states with the greatest number of black teen suicides. Reasons for suicide vary, but untreated trauma is one of the main causes.

"Let's say that a student was bullied in middle school and he starts suffering from depression," explained Valerie Merriweather, a Mental Health Promotions Specialist at North Carolina Central University. "If that goes untreated, then he's actually at increased risk of suicide, so by the time he gets to college he's even more at risk and more vulnerable, given all the stresses that students are under in college."

College campuses are also prime locations to address the problem, specifically HBCUs.

Brittnee Morgan is a junior at NCCU and also the founder of an annual event called "Break the Stigma." Morgan specifically designed it to bring the issues of mental illness and the rising suicide rate for black teens to the group it was most affecting.

Like so many others trying to address the problem, Morgan's life has been touched by suicide. Her grandfather killed himself in 1992. Morgan said her mother was often teased by other black people because of it.  

"Since it was such a negative view on her family, if that happened to my mom, imagine how many students that happens to and they don't speak up," Morgan said. "So I figured, why not be the voice for them?"

This year's "Break The Stigma" event at NCCU had food and games - as well as conversations aimed at teaching students to see signs of depression in their peers. It also alerted students to the support network and mental health resources available to them on campus.
"I think this is a nice event to bring awareness without making it so serious," said sophomore Jailyn Smith,  who attended with her friends. "It's a way for us to have fun and fellowship with each other and still have suicide awareness. So I feel hopeful that this event can lead to a change or a different outlook on suicide prevention."

Naomi Prioleau joined WUNC in January 2017.
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