County working on plan to reverse rise in Black suicides — ‘crisis that once again hits the African American community the hardest’
‘There is an overwhelming sense of isolation and despair, hopelessness that occurs during this pandemic that shifts the curve to another level’” said Dr. Diane Washington, Cook County Health’s behavioral health executive director.
After seeing a spike in suicides in an African-American community already devastated by COVID-19 and other tragedies, Cook County officials said Tuesday they’re working on a prevention plan to hopefully begin to mitigate the “horrifying” trend of more Black people dying by suicide.
“We have no choice but to do better,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said.
The county’s plan is being built “as we speak,” Dr. Diane Washington, the executive director of behavioral health at Cook County Health, said at a Tuesday news conference focused on the rise in suicides.
“We’re responding to the current data and needs that are presented before us,” Washington said. “Hopefully, before the end of the year we will have a comprehensive program in place.”
The potential cost and details of the plan are things the county is “looking at right now” as they begin to connect to community organizations and others that focus on suicide prevention and awareness.
So far this year, there have been 246 deaths by suicide, 58 of them in the Black community, said Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, the county’s medical examiner.
By contrast, 56 Black people died by suicide for all of 2019. Of those deaths in 2020, nearly 80% were men and 40% were under 30 years old — the youngest was nine years old.
“This is horrifying,” Preckwinkle said. “It’s not surprising that communities that have suffered the most are the ones who also have the least. The disinvestment, the redlining, systemic racism has culminated in a crisis that once again hits the African-American community the hardest.”
The plans for a suicide prevention plan follows an analysis done by The Trace, and published by the Chicago Sun-Times, that looked into the staggering rise in suicide among Black people.
The spike marks yet another grim milestone the county has reached during the pandemic. On top of COVID-19 deaths, the county’s medical examiner’s office has already handled more homicide cases than all of 2019, and the number of opioid deaths is also outpacing 2019 figures.
Washington, who has been a psychiatrist for over 28 years, said factors contributing to the rise in suicides include some “cultural aspects of Black America,” such as a stigma around seeking mental health care and a shame that comes with mental health in the Black community, which Washington said is “huge.”
“There is an overwhelming sense of isolation and despair, hopelessness that occurs during this pandemic that shifts the curve to another level,” Washington said, adding that the pandemic has taken away the usual supportive structures, such as school and other activities, that some young Black people turn to.
“We need to approach this situation in a very systematic way.”