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Experts say that people of color and young adults need to be particularly aware of stresses that can raise the risk of suicide. Westend61/Getty Images
  • New figures show that the overall suicide rate in the United States declined during the COVID-19 pandemic last year but increased for young adults and People of Color.
  • Experts say that the pandemic added to the stresses of job insecurity, food shortages, and bullying already felt by People of Color and young adults.
  • They say that more awareness of suicide prevention as well as better delivery of mental health services is needed.

Not long after the COVID-19 lockdowns began last year, actress Taraji P. Henson launched a campaign to help Black Americans get free access to therapy during the outbreak.

Henson, who’s best known for her role in the FOX drama “Empire,” said that she feared the already disadvantaged Black community would be facing “trauma on top of trauma.”

It turns out she had reason to worry.

A new study from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that while the overall rate of suicides in the United States decreased by 3 percent in 2020, the rates for People of Color and young people increased.

From 2018 to 2019, the overall suicide rate in the United States declined for the first time in more than a decade.

The research showed that those decreases were among white Americans, who still make up the majority of suicides.

But with mass stay-at-home orders, isolation, record unemployment, and a deadly virus, mental health workers feared Communities of Color would be facing added risk factors for suicide.

“When the pandemic started, in our field, we thought… we’re in trouble,” said Dr. Erica Martin Richards, the chair and medical director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Sibley Memorial Hospital and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

“In a lot of areas, Black and brown people were hit harder than others,” she told Healthline. “That’s in both being diagnosed with coronavirus and losing family members to COVID as well.”

Richards also said that the pandemic came as the country faced the fallout from the murder of Minnesota resident George Floyd in May 2020 and the police killings of other unarmed Black men.

“The timing also coincided a lot with the racial justice movement, and there was a lot of desperation seen in our community related to that,” she said.

Job insecurity, food insecurity, and no financial cushion to bounce back added to the stress level.

“We didn’t see the same from their white counterparts,” Richards noted.

“The rates are along the lines we would expect,” said James H. Cook Jr., PhD, NCC, LPCC, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Ohio and online counseling core faculty member at the University of Phoenix.

“There’s a historical context here of past disasters and health emergencies that seems to suggest that socially disadvantaged groups like racial and ethnic minorities, those in low income groups generally suffer more than those who are well off,” Cook told Healthline.

“Financial stress or strain, job loss… suicide tends to be higher among the underemployed,” he added. “Prolonged grieving can transform into something that is pathological. It’s thought to be about twice as high in African-Americans as in whites.”

Experts say that the higher rates of suicide among young people predated the pandemic, but the reasons aren’t all that clear.

There’s some thought that social media may play a role.

“Bullying can take place remotely now,” said Cook. “Unlike schoolyard bullying, now it’s 24 hours a day.

“When you look at Black youth, we have to look at access to care,” said Richards. “There are studies that say it’s not stigma… it’s access to care… it’s finding someone you can relate to.

“That is especially important with the younger generation where they’re really trying to search for themselves and find safe spaces to talk about things,” she explained.

“Do they have people they can go to? That they trust? That they can talk to?… That are culturally sensitive?

“There are lots of reasons this could be happening and it could still flow downstream from their parents and how they get led into seeking help. They may not have resources,” Richards added.

“And we have to figure out how to do that. It won’t always be someone of the same race. It won’t always be someone of the same gender… but we have to find people that can deliver care in a manner that’s culturally sensitive and age-appropriate,” she said.

Experts say one upside from the pandemic is the use of telemedicine to deliver mental health services.

“We were actually able to pivot very quickly to virtual appointments and phone appointments,” Richards said. “It’s improved our ability to reach patients. We’re able to meet people where they are. Certainly that goes for the Latinx community and African-Americans.

“I think that’s something that will stick around even as the world continues to open up,” she added.

“Public health experts say we need health campaigns that dispel myths about mental illness… because some cultures believe we don’t tell our secrets to outside people,” said Cook. “We need campaigns to increase the awareness of suicide risks and where you can receive treatment.”

Richards says that she tells people to start talking with someone they feel comfortable with and trust. That could be their OB-GYN, primary care doctor, or a religious leader. And she says that she reminds families that having a gun in their home increases suicide risk.

“Mental health care is not going to be a one size fits all approach. Risk factors are going to be different for different groups and more study is needed,” she said.

Both experts pointed out there is free help available 24 hours a day through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. That number is (800) 273-8255.

There’s also the Crisis Text Line, where you can connect with a crisis counselor by texting HOME to 741741.