Thinking about how many people she knew who took their lives, there was a time Alleyah Getter wasn’t sure she would have any friends left by the time she got to high school. Three had killed themselves, and Getter, now a 14-year-old eighth-grader, was beginning to have her own suicidal thoughts.
“It was like feeling like there was nothing you could do about it,” she said. “Eventually it was like there would be a day you just did it. It just felt like pain was nothing. You couldn’t talk to nobody. You just want to be alone and see if you can get through it yourself.”
Getter did the thing advocates and survivors encourage everyone to do: She talked about her feelings. She told her father what was going on and eventually became part of a church group that helps children, teens and adults deal with mental health issues. Without opening up, Getter said, she doesn’t think she would be alive.
“It kind of makes me feel happy that I actually made it,” she said. “There’s a lot of families whose kids actually did it, and they wish they would have stopped it.”
A bleak picture
A study published in May from the Journal of Community Health found that the suicide rate for African American teenage boys increased 60% from 2001 to 2017. It was even worse for girls, who saw an increase of 182%. Suicide was the second leading cause of death for African American teenagers in that time.
- NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE: 1-800-273-8255. The suicide prevention hotline is free and confidential and open 24/7. A live chat is also available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Those who have been impacted by suicide have their diagnoses. There’s bullying on social media, a harsh stigma for people dealing with mental health issues and so on. But these are disconnected anecdotes. There isn’t enough information about African American teenage suicides.
“That seems to be a problem,” said Jagdish Khubchandani, a health science professor at Ball State University and co-author of the study. “We need larger samples and cohorts over time to figure why this is happening with African American teenagers.”
Khubchandani noted that it’s difficult to do research on school-aged children, but the consequence is that it’s hard to draw sound conclusions about what’s behind the rise in suicide rates and how to help those who are thinking about killing themselves.
The study mentions that most of what’s known about suicide, including methods to prevent it, are focused on white Americans, who have higher rates of suicide than African Americans.
It’s difficult to get as full of a picture locally. The Marion County Coroner’s Office could only provide data for suicide deaths from 2016 to 2018. The coroner’s office investigated 47 suicide deaths in that time, but only two were teenagers, one in 2017 and one in 2018. Both were white males. Many more were in their 20s, including one Black female in 2017.
Coroners aren’t contacted in the case of every death, and the coroner ultimately determines whether to investigate, but their office is supposed to investigate known or suspected suicides.
People dealing with mental health issues are well aware of the stigma that comes with something you can’t see or touch having such a profound impact on your life. That stigma is universal, but some worry it’s especially bad with African Americans.
Dr. Jeanne Dickens, a medical psychiatrist at Sandra Eskenazi Mental Health Center, said well-meaning parents and others in the community can “actually discourage a young person from seeking mental health care” by instead putting an emphasis on being strong and dealing with it yourself.
Joshua Jordan experienced this after his family moved from Chicago to Indianapolis when he was 11. He had no friends and was bullied. He attempted to kill himself for the first time when he was in eighth grade and went on to make more than 20 attempts.
Jordan, 29, now does crisis intervention with young adults. He said the African American community “makes mental health issues a problem. They make it something we can’t talk about, when in reality it’s something that should be spoken about.”
Even when he thought his parents would be understanding, Jordan said, he hesitated to talk to them because he didn’t want them to see him differently. Talking to parents about mental health issues can also be difficult because they may brush it off, thinking someone in their early teens can’t possibly know what it is to be depressed or have sever anxiety.
“When we hear a child say they’re feeling suicidal … we have to always take it seriously,” said Kelsey Steuer,the state’s area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “We also get the question of, ‘What if they’re talking about this for attention?’ We don’t ever want to test fate.”
The role guns play
Advocates say it’s important to look at suicide as a public health issue, and for many who are trying to prevent suicide, that means taking into account a deadly weapon that experts also argue needs to be seen in the light of public health: guns.
A 2018 report — “Confronting the Inevitability Myth” — from Giffords Law Center found guns account for 5% of suicide attempts but 50% of suicide deaths. The lesson is they’re deadly and don’t often leave people with a second chance. That’s important because, according to the report, more than two-thirds of survivors don’t attempt again.
Ari Freilich, an expert at Giffords, agreed restricting access to guns is the most important thing that could be done to prevent teenage suicide because 71% of people attempt suicide within an hour of deciding to do so, according to the report.
People who attempt suicide are not uniquely ill, Freilich said. Many people deal with mental illness at some point in their lives, if not chronically. The more accurate way to look at someone who attempts suicide is “like they’re going through a tough situation that created a temporary spiral.”
A 2014 survey of studies in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found the risk of suicide is two to five times higher in gun-owning homes for all household members. Andrea Summers-Cotton, mental health wellness specialist for Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), said the district is working with families so they know the importance of keeping guns locked away.
“Our concern is that a lot of our families have guns in the home,” she said, “and when you ask little kids where guns are in the home, they know.”
Giffords publishes an annual gun law scorecard to grade gun laws in each state, where an A+ means that state’s laws are best and working. Indiana got a D- in 2018. Effective gun control laws advocates push for usually include universal background checks, waiting periods to get a gun and mandated safe storage.
In the schools
Because parents and other adults aren’t always going to be helpful when a child tells them they’re dealing with mental health issues or are thinking about harming themselves, schools are often a first line of defense. Along with social workers and counselors, some larger school districts have specialists who focus on mental health and try to educate parents and students about how to deal with those issues.
Some IPS schools have as many as three full-time therapists five days a week. Middle schoolers and high schoolers get information each year about what to do if they or someone they know is struggling and possibly thinking about taking their life. But Summers-Cotton said there’s a “culture” where families are “hesitant to embrace mental health.”
To get a clear picture of what bullying looks like in schools would be difficult by just relying on data. In Marion County and across the state, schools likely aren’t providing an accurate look at how often bullying happens.
Out of 57 schools in IPS, 22 reported no incidents of physical bullying in the state’s report of bullying incidents for the 2018-19 school year. Many reported fewer than five. Only six schools reported any incidents of “Written Communication/Electronic Bullying,” which includes cyber-bullying.
When it comes to cyber-bullying, Summers-Cotton said schools mostly rely on students telling administration about instances since it usually happens outside of the school and not during school hours.
IPS spokesperson Carrie Cline Black attributed these low numbers to a discrepancy in how the district was giving data to the state. Going forward, she said, bullying numbers should “look a little bit different.”
To be sure, this is not a problem unique to IPS. About half of Indiana schools reported no incidents of bullying.
Kids Kindness Club
Michael Finkton got tired of the bullying he saw at his elementary school and decided he had to do something about it. Finkton, 9, attends Guion Creek Elementary School in Pike Township. The school reported no incidents of any kind of bullying for the 2018-19 school year.
“Me walking by, seeing that happen,” he said, “I really didn’t like it. So I went home and started thinking about it, and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I should form a club or something.’”
Finkton started the Kids Kindness Club, which was born out of an essay he wrote for the Bullying and Suicide Essay Contest put on by Sisters Standing Together. The group is sponsoring the Kids Kindness Club, which will be open for children ages 8 to 12. It will debut at Real Youth and Teens Talking, an event put on by Sisters Standing Together at 1 p.m. Aug. 31 at Watkins Park, 2360 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St.
Finkton said he’s been bullied at school and was embarrassed to talk about it with his parents or teachers. He encouraged those who are experiencing bullying to tell a trusted adult what’s going on and hopes his club inspires other children to get involved.
“I really don’t want to be the only one out here helping,” he said. “I just want more people to know, don’t be afraid. Go out and do what you have to do. Show how confident you are to stop bullying, stop suicide, whatever’s going on out here.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.
LOOKING FOR HELP?
If you are someone you know is experiencing mental health issues or thinking about taking their life, consider these resources.
• Sandra Eskenazi Mental Health Center, 3171 N. Meridian St.
• National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Indianapolis, 911 E. 86th St. Suite 70
• Options Behavioral Health System, 5602 Caito Drive
• St. Vincent Stress Center, 2001 W. 86th St.
• Community Health Network, 1500 N. Ritter Ave.
OUT OF THE DARKNESS WALK
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hosts an annual Out of the Darkness Walk for survivors to meet each other and get connected with resources.
When: Sept. 14. Registration begins at 12:30 p.m. and the walk begins at 3 p.m.
Where: White River State Park Celebration Plaza,
Cost: Free, but you can set a fundraising goal
Learn more: Contact Tammy Lundy at 317-426-1750 or email firstname.lastname@example.org