Suicide Prevention for African American Students

Risk Factors for Suicidal Behavior within the African American Community

Protective Factors for Suicidal Behavior among African American Students

Personal Protective Factors

External/Environmental Protective Factors

Know the Warning Signs

Suicide Prevention Starts with Understanding Depression

Common Concerns among African American Students Who Experience Depression

You Can Help

Find Someone Else Who Can Help

Student Support Numbers and Mental Health Services

African American students often have close interpersonal and spiritual communities that provide support during difficult times. However, suicidal behavior historically has been considered a taboo subject in the African American community. Contributing to this stigma are false cultural beliefs, including that African American men should be tough, African American women are resilient and do not crack under pressure, and suicide is an “unforgivable sin.” As a result, many African Americans mistakenly believe that suicide is not a problem within their community and are unaware that rates of suicidal behavior for African Americans are on the rise. Currently, suicide is the third leading cause of death for African Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. African American college-age males, in particular, have shown a significant increase in suicidal behaviors in recent years. 

African American students face problems similar to those experienced by other students, including relationship and family problems, academic and career concerns, anxiety, and depression. African American students’ problems may be compounded by socioeconomic challenges, discrimination, racism, abuse, rejection by society, and a lack of support on campus. Suicidal behaviors often result from the culmination of stressful living conditions combined with depression.

Similar to other students, a number of personal and environmental factors can help protect African American students from mental health problems and risk of suicidal behaviors (see protective factors below). Factors that are especially helpful for African American students include strong ties to the family and community, strong social support networks, religious involvement and religious network, and spiritual well-being. 

RISK FACTORS FOR SUICIDAL BEHAVIOR WITHIN
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY

(*denotes most common risk factors)

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Hopelessness

  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies

  • Substance use/abuse

  • Previous suicide attempt or previous thoughts of killing oneself

  • Coping style in which problems are kept inside/unexpressed*

  • Low self-esteem and lack of self-efficacy

  • Feelings of loneliness, guilt, shame, or inadequacy

  • Academic concerns*

  • Financial concerns

 
  • Conflicts with friends, roommates, peers, or partner

  • Recent loss (e.g., death or breakup)

  • Social isolation, particularly from family or spiritual community*

  • Conflict with parents about choice of academic major, career, or dating partner

  • History of physical or sexual abuse

  • Family history of depression and/or suicide

  • Easy access to firearms or other lethal methods

  • Unwillingness to seek help because of shame in seeking mental health services

  • Lack of access to mental health care

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Protective Factors for Suicidal Behavior among African American Students

Protective factors are characteristics, skills, strengths, or resources that help people deal effectively with stressful events and reduce the likelihood of attempting or completing suicide. They enhance resilience and can help compensate for risk factors. Each person has his or her own unique set of protective factors, which can be either personal or environmental. Increasing protective factors can help decrease risk of suicidal behaviors, and students should work to maintain and increase these protective factors.

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PERSONAL PROTECTIVE FACTORS

  • Strong self-esteem

  • Sense of personal control

  • Impulse control

  • Coping skills

  • Social skills (i.e., communication skills, anger management, etc.)

  • Hope for the future, optimism

  • Reasons for living

  • A healthy lifestyle, including eating well, restful sleep, and exercise

  • A healthy fear of risky behaviors and pain

 
  • Sobriety

  • Medical compliance and a sense of the importance of health and wellness

  • Attitudes, values, and norms prohibiting suicide

  • Cultural, religious, or spiritual beliefs that discourage suicide

  • Being happily partnered

  • Being a parent

  • Willingness to seek help and access mental health services

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EXTERNAL/ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTIVE FACTORS

  • Strong connections to friends, family, and supportive significant others

  • Strong social-support network

  • Responsibilities/duties to others

  • Pets

  • Opportunities to participate in and contribute to school and/or community projects/activities
 
  • A reasonably safe and stable living environment

  • Spiritual well-being

  • Religious involvement

  • Restricted access to firearms or other lethal methods

  • Access to physical and mental health services

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Know the Warning Signs

Although African American individuals may vary in how they respond to suicidal thoughts, there are common warning signs that may suggest a student is considering suicide. In particular, it is important to notice and follow up when someone you know is acting out of character. An individual may be at risk for suicide if he or she:

WARNING SIGNS

  • Experiences feelings of hopelessness and helplessness

  • Reports feeling very depressed

  • Experiences anxiety and/or stress

  • Increases their use of alcohol and/or other drugs

  • Engages in reckless behaviors

  • Has physical symptoms

  • Withdraws from family, community, or friends, and from activities once enjoyed

 
  • Says things such as, “I don’t deserve to be here,” “I wish I were dead,” “I am going to kill myself,” or “I want to die.”

  • Is focused on death and dying

  • Talks about wanting to attempt or complete suicide

  • Writes poems, letters, or stories about death and/or suicide

  • Starts giving away possessions

  • Prepares for death by making out a will

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Suicide Prevention Starts with Understanding Depression

Depression is a condition that affects people of all ages, genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations. Contrary to what some assume, a person with depression may find it hard simply to “get over it” or “snap out of it” any more than someone with a medical problem can get over his or her illness. Depression can be passed from one generation to the next; sometimes stress or other life events trigger depression or depression results from a combination of factors. When someone is depressed, he or she typically feels a sadness that lasts longer than a few days or weeks, and this state of mind can be accompanied by thoughts of wanting to hurt or kill oneself. Alcohol and drugs may make feelings of depression even worse. Fortunately, depression can be treated.

Recognizing depression is a critical first step in getting yourself or someone you know the help needed. It is important to keep in mind that friends or loved ones may not know how to ask for help, so understanding what to look for is important.

Common concerns among African American students who experience depression

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You Can Help

First and foremost, take concerns about suicidal behavior seriously. It is always better to overreact than underreact to someone’s suicidal thoughts. Here are some things you can do when someone you know is thinking about suicide:

WAYS TO HELP

  • Listen and accept the other person’s feelings

  • Express your care and concern

  • Be empathetic

  • Try not to judge or argue

  • Do not allow yourself to be sworn to secrecy

  • Don’t act shocked by the person’s plans

 
  • Never dare someone to kill themselves

  • Offer to go with the person to seek help from his or her parents, partner, or other family members, friends, a counselor, spiritual leader, or other source of support

  • If possible, do not leave the person alone

  • Seek support or advice from others

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Find Someone Else Who Can Help

WHO CAN HELP

  • Counseling Center

  • Resident Advisers

  • Office of Multicultural Programs and Services

 
  • Campus Security

  • Family Members

  • Friends

  • Crisis Line

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Student Support Numbers and Mental Health Services

(Please note that these resources typically operate during business hours only; for 24/7 support, call one of the emergency numbers listed below.)

Emergency Numbers

Additional Resources for African American Students

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