Ashawnty Davis shouldn’t have died.
A 10-year-old girl who dreamed of becoming a WNBA star should never have ended up in a hospital bed, on life support, after hanging herself in her bedroom.
But that’s what happened to the fifth grader after bullying led to a fist fight with a girl much bigger, which was recorded and posted online. The pain was apparently too much for this small child to bear, so rather than face this cruel world, she left it.
Ashawnty isn’t alone.
Imani McCray, 8-years-old hung herself after being put in time out one week before her birthday, not too long after Ashawnty’s death. Eight-year-old Gabriel Taye hung himself earlier this year after incidents of bullying in a school bathroom. And two Kentucky teens, girlfriend and boyfriend, Mercedes Shaday Smith and Markeice ‘Mari’ Brown committed suicide just days apart in April.
These are just some of the black children we’ve lost to a growing trend of suicide; numbers which researchers say have doubled for African-American youth ages 5 to 11 from 1993-2012.
The rates of black youth who kill themselves by hanging has tripled in recent years, while the number for white youth went unchanged.
We need to do something about it
It’s hard and painful to understand: Why would children so young turn to death to cope with their pain?
Black people have survived the horrors of slavery, segregation and racism on the daily. Why would ‘we’ commit suicide?
But the myth that somehow our ability to survive means we are still thriving could be the very thing that’s killing our children.
We talked to multiple black child psychologists, therapists, researchers and mental health specialists to talk about the problem and solutions.
We’re Living In A Different World
In a community where adults aren’t getting the mental health help they need because of stigma, black children may be more at-risk of not getting social and emotional support.
“Suicide is always the result of depression,” says Deidra A. Sorrell, EDD, LPC, a certified school psychologist. “Depression is feeling hopeless and helpless. So if you have children who are being bullied, there is hopelessness and helplessness.”
While each individual case is different, and there is no one sole cause for suicide, kids are living in an entirely different world than their parents grew up in.
Young people today deal with a monster most adults didn’t have to face: social media.
Increased internet usage has been linked to an increase in depression and suicidal thoughts amongst teens.
In Ashawnty Davis’ case, her parents say that once their young daughter discovered the fight she was in had been recorded and uploaded to the app Musical.ly, she was overwhelmed with humiliation.
Think your generation was simply tougher? Back in the day, typical arguments and fights at school didn’t have the same lasting effect.
“No one recorded the fight,” says Adrian Gale, PhD, MSW, a research scientist who studies black adolescent school experiences. “Now it’s everywhere in a couple minutes.”
Dr. Gale also says that in this new media age, conversations which often start inside the school, spill out into cyberspace with no teacher or supervising adult watching.
“Negative experiences in schools impact adolescent psychological outcomes, even more so than academic outcomes,” says Dr. Gale. “How safe it is, how fair the discipline is, how supportive their teachers are, how caring they perceive their peers to be- all of these impact their psychological functioning.”
Simply put, what happens at school matters to the mental health of a child. And in school systems which often fail to support black children, too many black and brown kids are exposed to high levels of violence, trauma and inadequate counseling.
Our Families Need Help
In addition to what happens at school, what’s happening – or not happening- at home and in our communities makes a difference for black youth’s mental health.
“The structures that we had as African Americans that we created to make sure we survived this racist world are kind of crashing,” says Dr. Carol Valentin, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, who trains counselors in Harlem.
“I think our families need help, not just the individual children. We’re seeing children at three and four [years old] having anxiety, depression and trauma. It starts there, very young.”
The attention of a supportive adult can mean everything to a child after a big incident like a fight or trauma at school.
“Knowing your child is important,” says Dr. Wilfred Farquharson, a licensed psychologist and owner of a private practice. “Often in African-American cultures, there’s this notion of ‘Stand up to bullies, say something back. That’s the only way to get them to stop.’ That’s not always true. It depends on the child.”
“Parents need to sit down with the child and explain that it’s not their fault,” says Deirdra A. Sorrell, EDD, LPC, a certified school psychologist. “Although it seems like their world is falling apart, there’s so much to life after that. Things can get better. Life can change and will change.”
“All My Friends Are Dead”
Less than two weeks after Ashawnty Davis committed suicide, Imani McCray hung herself in a closet. Her family insists that she may have been influenced by reading about Davis’ death on Facebook.
In the hit song “XO Tour Life,” rapper Lil Uzi Vert sings “Push me to the edge, All my friends are dead.” While his is certainly not the first song to address suicidal ideation, suicide has become a more popular topic in mainstream media and music, with shows like “13 Reasons Why” being blamed for copycat deaths.
“That’s the spiritual aspect of suicide that a lot people are addressing,” says Sorrell. “It’s spiritual not scientific. When suicide is glamorized, there can be that contagious effect if [youth] themselves are suffering from depression.”
Which makes it important to not glamorize or sensationalize suicide as we cover it in the news.
“From a public health standpoint, suicide being a leading cause of death is a big issue because [youth’s] ability to achieve their full potential, those things are all snuffed out,” says Dr. Shawn CT Jones, NSF post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
Taking Action for Black Youth
Too often symptoms of depression in black youth are mistaken for behavioral issues, when really they are cries for help.
A new report says that poor black teenagers express symptoms of depression differently from other demographics- so lack of sleep and having interpersonal conflicts, are actually signs of needing help, not punishment.
The more depressed a child is, the more likely they are to commit suicide.
Experts say this means we should actively listen to and address cries for help because we may be able to intervene in time.
“Often times we live by the adage that ‘It takes a village…’,” Dr. Jones says. “As a community we can’t look ourselves in the mirror in a positive way if we are unable to help those amongst us who are suffering so much, they feel taking their life is the only option.”
This also means normalizing counseling and mental health care, encouraging positive self-identity and mentoring children in our community- before problems even arise.
It shouldn’t take viral videos or celebrities to take interest in our children’s well-being.
We were too late for Ashawnty, but the rest of our babies still need to know it’s worth it to keep living.
For more resources on suicide prevention and mental health support, visit: