Frederick Douglass is regarded as one of the most prominent
abolitionists the world has ever seen. Alongside his extraordinary
contributions as an influential speaker, writer
and human rights advocate, Douglass – who was born into slavery and gained freedom in September 1838 – also wrote openly about his struggles with suicidal thoughts.
are both revolutionary and transformative, particularly when
considering that he lived during a time when several anti-literacy laws
prevented enslaved Black persons from learning to read and write.
Douglass published his first autobiography
– “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” – in 1845. In it, he
boldly shared, “I often found myself regretting my own existence, and
wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt
that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should
have been killed.”
It’s not hard to imagine why formerly enslaved persons like Douglass
would consider ending their own lives. It may, however, be harder for
some to understand the links between racism, discrimination and thoughts
of suicide among Black Americans today.
The United States abolished chattel slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. However, Black Americans are still grappling with the effects of both structural and everyday forms of racism that permeate U.S. customs, culture and laws.
As a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice, I explore how factors
like discrimination, stigma and depression contribute to suicide risk
in Black Americans. I also assess how positive psychological forces –
like having a sense of life purpose or receiving social support from
others – may improve an individual’s mental health outcomes.
have reported that exposure to discrimination is related to negative
mental and physical health outcomes in Black Americans. These can
include increased rates of depression, hypertension and sleep
disturbance. Fewer studies have explored how racial discrimination is
related to suicidal risk.
Therefore, in 2019 I led a study that examined whether racial discrimination was linked to depression and suicidal thoughts in adult Black men.
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The events that have unfolded since this study was published underscore the need for this line of research.
My work, along with research done by a host of other scholars,
affirms that any attempt to systematically address inequitable treatment
of Black Americans – such as the recent White House executive order
on advancing educational equity and economic opportunity – should also
account for the ways in which racial discrimination has impacted mental
health outcomes among this particular population.
Racial discrimination and mental health
My co-authors and I analyzed survey responses from more than 1,200
African American men ages 18 to 93 who resided in different states
across the U.S. Data was originally collected from 2001 to 2003 through
the National Survey of American Life. This project was led by the late social psychologist James S. Jackson, whose groundbreaking career shifted the way that Black Americans were represented and studied in research.
This survey is
one of the few nationally representative data sources that uses
probability – or random – sampling to explicitly address the mental
health experiences of Black adolescents and adults.
We decided to focus our study on Black men because historically, Black males have been four to six times more likely to die by suicide compared to Black females.
Participants in this national survey were asked to indicate how
frequently they encountered discrimination in their everyday lives. The
experiences surveyed ranged from being treated with less courtesy or
respect to being harassed and followed in stores, along with being
perceived as dishonest, not smart or not as good as others.
We analyzed men’s responses with a series of statistical tests that
measured whether different forms of discrimination were related to
negative mental health outcomes. We found that
Black men who reported more frequent encounters with racial
discrimination were more likely to experience depression symptoms and
thoughts of suicide at some point during their lifetime.
These findings suggest
that experiences of discrimination do not have to be overt or extreme
in order to be harmful. Rather, regularly occurring acts of racial
discrimination that may initially seem minor can become increasingly
stressful over time.
When interpreting these results, it is important to note that we
analyzed findings from a cross-sectional study. This means that surveys
were administered to participants at only one point in time. Therefore,
we were able to establish associations among the variables, but cannot
use this data to confirm that racial discrimination caused subsequent
thoughts of suicide.
Nonetheless, our findings still offer an important step forward by
establishing that links between racial discrimination, depression
symptoms and lifetime suicidal thoughts do exist.
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Mental health of Black children and youth
Our study builds on other research that has also identified links
between racial discrimination and suicidal thoughts in Black Americans.
For example, University of Houston clinical psychologist Rheeda Walker and her colleagues found that among 722 Black children,
experiences of racial discrimination were linked to more depression and
greater odds of suicidal thoughts two years later. Members of the
research team contacted participants two times and asked the same survey
questions – once at age 10 and again at age 12.
Findings generated from their 2017 study
are particularly meaningful because the authors analyzed data over
time, which allowed them to confirm that racial discrimination
significantly predicts an increase in suicidal thoughts, and not the other way around.
Since then, clinicians, researchers and organizational leaders have partnered with members of the Congressional Black Caucus
to call attention to the urgent mental health needs of Black youth. In
2019, this group created an emergency task force and released a powerful report that carefully describes the current state of suicide among Black youth.
As detailed in various studies, Black children ages 5 to 12
were two times more likely to die by suicide relative to white children, with young Black boys
being particularly vulnerable to suicide risk. Notably, rates of
suicide have also significantly increased among Black teenage girls in recent years.
In response to these concerns, leaders at the National Institutes of Health have allocated research funds and invited applications for projects promoting suicide prevention among Black youth.
Researchers have also begun to explore the links between structural forms of racism and suicide risk. For instance, a study published in 2020
found that being unfairly fired from a job and experiencing abuse from
the police were linked to suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts among
Despite these advances in research, it remains unclear whether any
existing suicide prevention interventions account for the specific ways
that racial discrimination impacts Black Americans’ psychological and
Therefore, it will be essential for researchers, clinicians and
community members to work together in promoting the mental health needs
of Black children and adults, while simultaneously encouraging Black
Americans to hold on to the hope that Frederick Douglass professed more
than 175 years ago.
This story originally appeared on The Conversation.
Assistant Professor of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, University of Chicago
This content was originally published here.