In Chicago, a steep rise in suicide among Black people

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[PHOTO: PAT NABONG/SUN-TIMES]

Angie Graves poses for a portrait as her son Deyaveon Roberts hugs her in North Lawndale Friday afternoon, July 24, 2020. Graves saw herself as Malik Webber’s “adopted mom.” Webber died by suicide in March 2020. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

This story was originally published in a partnership between The Trace and the Chicago Sun-Times

Malik Webber loved to eat. Chicken. Chitlins. Spaghetti. Dressing. He was social, with lots of friends, always a smile on his face.

These are the things Angie Graves remembers most about him. Graves, 48, knew Webber since he was a kid. He lived a few houses down from her on a North Lawndale block where everybody knows everybody, and kids line up to buy snow cones.

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Webber died by suicide in March. He was 21.

“You still ask yourself why,” said Graves, who took in Webber when he was a teenager and calls him her son.

She says he didn’t leave a note and doesn’t know why he killed himself, but that Webber had dealt with a lot of grief following the deaths of several family members and friends growing up.

“He struggled,” she said. “He probably was struggling for a long time.”

Midway through 2020, Cook County is seeing an alarming rise in the number of suicides among Black residents. The number of deaths has already matched the total for all of last year, putting 2020 on pace to be the worst year in a decade.

As of July 24, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office had recorded 57 deaths of Black men, women and children from suicide this year. That compares to 56 — which was a nine-year low — for all of 2019.

Since 2010, the average annual number of deaths has been 65.

A similar rise isn’t evident in the number of white Cook County residents who have died by suicide — and who account for the majority of suicides here, as well as nationally. And there hasn’t been a rise in suicide among Latinos, though the medical examiner’s data on ethnicity can be flawed.

It’s likely that the number of suicides recorded so far in 2020 is an undercount. The Medical Examiner’s Office has more than 600 cases in which the cause of death is pending. The majority of those cases are awaiting toxicology results and are possibly related to accidental drug overdoses.

Typically, suicides fall during the summer and winter. But the number of suicides among Black Cook County residents has doubled in the first half of 2020 compared to last year.

The overall numbers of suicides in Illinois and nationwide have been rising over the past two decades, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national suicide rate has increased nearly 35 percent between 1999 and 2018. The rate among Black people, who make up a smaller percentage of suicides overall, has increased, as well, particularly among Black youth, data shows.

 

The rise in suicide among Black residents this year began even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s stay-at-home order. Most of the victims were male. Just over 40 percent of the deaths involved a gun. About a third were hangings.

The median age of the people who died was 36, data shows. But the youngest victim, a boy who died earlier this month, was only 9 years old.

The deaths overwhelmingly occurred in Chicago, often on the South Side and the West Side in neighborhoods with high rates of unemployment and poverty — communities that also have disproportionately been hit by the pandemic in terms of the number of deaths and the resulting economic devastation.

Seven of the deaths in 2020, including Webber’s, occurred within a single two-mile radius in North Lawndale, an examination of data from the Medical Examiner’s Office shows.

There’s no single explanation for the rising number of suicides. But, according to the CDC, anxiety and depression are up among Black Americans in general amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a national reckoning over racism, and how Black people disproportionately are victims of poverty and police abuse. Even before the pandemic, the number of shootings and opioid-related overdoses — both of which also disproportionately affect Black people in Chicago — were up this year.

The increase in Cook County could indicate an emerging crisis for Black Americans’ mental health during the pandemic, some researchers and people who work in the field say, but they caution that it’s too soon to know that for certain. The CDC’s national suicide data is published annually; the most recent statistics are from 2018. This lag makes it difficult to develop a clear understanding of how suicide numbers are changing in real time, particularly for racial and ethnic groups.

Arturo Carrillo, a clinical social worker, says Chicago’s private and nonprofit health centers often have long waiting lists, making them difficult to access for low-income residents.

“If you have health insurance, if you can pay out-of-pocket co-pays, and you live in more affluent parts of the city, you have a buffet of therapists to choose from,” said Carrillo, who leads the Collaborative for Community Wellness, a mental health organization. “If you live in low-income communities, you get the scraps.”

In a report earlier this month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s COVID-19 Recovery Task Force listed recommendations for improving mental health services in Chicago that included offering mobile-service vans and establishing a “211” helpline just for mental health needs. The group did not call for bringing back the city’s six mental health clinics, which then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration closed in 2012.

Carrillo, who was part of the task force’s mental health focus group, has criticized Lightfoot for not reopening the clinics, despite a campaign promise to do so. Chicago has five city-operated mental health clinics for its nearly 3 million residents.

“Ignoring the issue until it becomes a crisis has become the method of treatment,” Carrillo said, “creating a city of waiting rooms.”

According to a study released by the task force, behavioral health hospitalizations among Black residents are higher than for other groups, and most of those hospitalizations are among people with significant economic hardship. The task force also noted that people on the South Side and the West Side have limited access to mental health clinicians.

“The going idea is that people do not seek services because of stigma, and we did some surveys [and found] that people are not getting services because of structural barriers,” said Amika Tendaji, a mental health organizer for the advocacy group Southside Together Organizing for Power. “They cannot pay the privatized services that have yearlong waiting lists.”

Matt Richards, a deputy commissioner with the Chicago Department of Public Health, said the department has been monitoring the rise in suicides and plans to issue a public health alert in the next few weeks.

“We’re very, very concerned about any provisional data indicating that there are disparities [in suicides],” Richards said. He added that the department would solicit proposals next month for new mental health services in the Chicago communities with the most need and develop a suicide prevention plan.

A report released earlier this year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said Black and Latino people have “substantially” less access to mental health treatment.

“We have to recognize that we have a problem and deficit as it relates to mental health support in our communities with high trauma,” said State Representative LaShawn Ford, whose district includes the West Side. “These Black communities have been dealing with all the things poverty creates: violence, poor mental and physical health, drug use, suicide.”

Ford recently assembled a small team of community leaders and mental health professionals to identify ways to address trauma on the city’s West Side caused by the pandemic and gun violence.

“Even before the pandemic, we were already dealing with a violent society suffering from major mental health conditions,” he said. “And that kind of stuff really just got sidetracked. It seemed like the government could only focus on one thing at a time.”

Mental health professionals and clergy in Chicago say they are seeing an increase in anxiety and depression among their Black clients and parishioners. “Within the first month of George Floyd happening, that conversation became very front-and-center,” said Matt Lawson, a counselor at Chicago Compass Counseling. “That conversation has led into a lot of other things that speak to some unspoken trauma. A lot of people in the Black community deal with this sense that we kind of carry around a burden or a sense that there’s something out there trying to get us.”

Sherry Molock, an associate professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University, said she has worried about an increase in suicide ever since COVID-19’s disproportionate toll on Black Americans became clear. She says the pandemic, along with financial insecurity caused by the ravaged economy, is putting people at a higher risk of suicide.

“We’re all watching this, getting scared,” Molock said. “In the Black community, [suicide] was already increasing a bit, and this is like another layer of stress sores.”

Some researchers are worried about how this year might affect suicides among Black youth, specifically.

“We know, unfortunately, that life is just really hard,” said Arielle Sheftall, a researcher with Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio. “We know that, unfortunately, Black youth experience a lot of things that other youth don’t.”

Sheftall co-authored a study last year detailing a more than 70 percent increase in self-reported suicide attempts among Black teens since the early ‘90s. “As a member of the Black and Brown community, it’s really hard to know that my folks are being affected,” she said. “It’s devastating, to be quite honest.”

Suicides among youth in Cook County have not changed drastically since 2010, according to medical examiner data. Halfway through the year, however, suicides among Black people in Cook County under the age of 30 are nearly double the average for the same six-month time period going back to 2010.

Sean Joe, a professor of social work who focuses on Black suicidology at Washington University in St. Louis, says it will take a few years to know the full impact of the stresses on Black communities.

“People are so preoccupied now that the emotional trauma they’re experiencing is kind of blunted,” Joe said. “It’s coming, that wave is coming. It’s just too much unattended grief that’s happening.”

Contributing reporting by Daniel Nass and Chip Brownlee