Time for some more ‘real talk’

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Suicide rates for young black children have nearly doubled over the last two decades, even as rates for white children in the same age group have declined.

That statistic is more disturbing with understanding that, historically, suicide rates in the black community have been significantly lower. In other words, this marks the first time that suicide rates among blacks of any age group have exceeded those of white counterparts.

The realization was an exceptionally bitter pill for Linda Topinka, a Cedar Rapids licensed social worker who also is a founding member of the African American Family Preservation and Resource Committee. The group formed in 2006, primarily to address racial disparities in social welfare organizations and foster care, but has since expanded its focus in Linn County. She serves as the organization’s outreach coordinator.

Linda Topinka of Cedar Rapids prepares a meal for attendees of a Kwanzaa Celebration at the African American Musuem of Iowa in this December 2013 file photo. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Linda Topinka of Cedar Rapids prepares a meal for attendees of a Kwanzaa Celebration at the African American Musuem of Iowa in this December 2013 file photo. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Topinka read the study findings in a recent issue of JAMA Pediatrics, a medical journal that offers peer-reviewed research.

“I was shocked and horrified and, actually, so were the researchers who reported the findings,” she said. “Because this was so unusual, they questioned their results, holding off on publishing until everything had been reconsidered. And, yes, they found, this is really happening.”

The study tracked suicides among children age 5 to 11 from 1993 to 2012. During this time, the suicide rate of black boys rose from 1.78 to 3.47 per million, while suicides for white boys dropped from 1.96 to 1.31 per million.

Rate of suicide among black girls is also rising, increasing from .68 to 1.23 per million. Rates for white girls experienced a tiny decline from .25 to .24 per million.

The third leading cause of death for young black males is suicide.

The results for male children were shocking enough for researchers to spend an additional year gathering and reviewing data before releasing their findings. No matter the statistics, the heartbreak of suicide is the continued questioning of those left behind. Would another day or week offered a different perspective, new interests and continued life?

A sign is placed amid backpacks on a lawn at the University of Iowa in Iowa City to show the relationship between suicide and mental illness. News that suicides among young black males have more than doubled has served as the spark for a new community conversation in Cedar Rapids. Licensed social worker Linda Topinka is organizing the discussion, which will be held Thursday, June 18, at Jane Boyd. (File photo: Lauren Coffey/The Gazette)
A sign is placed amid backpacks on a lawn at the University of Iowa in Iowa City to show the relationship between suicide and mental illness. News that suicides among young black males have more than doubled has served as the spark for a new community conversation in Cedar Rapids. Licensed social worker Linda Topinka is organizing the discussion, which will be held Thursday, June 18, at Jane Boyd. (File photo: Lauren Coffey/The Gazette)

“We have had instances of suicide in our community, and we have grieved those lives,” Topinka said. “But we still haven’t talked about it.”

Many people continue to fear open discussions of suicide due to “Werther-effect,” a yet-to-be proven theory that media coverage of suicide leads to more suicide, which was named after a 1774 novel by J.W. Von Goethe.

Hopefully, this will change on June 18. The AAFPRC is hosting “Real Talk, a Community Conversation” at Jane Boyd Community House. Beginning at 5:30 p.m., the discussion is aimed at addressing trauma and removing the stigma of mental health in the black community.

While the focus will be on the black community, Topinka hopes participation isn’t.

“I’d like to see young people in attendance,” she said. “I hope to see teachers and foster parents, regardless of their race, participating. I think this will be a valuable discussion for everyone, and we simply must begin talking so that we can turn these statistics around.”

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on June 13, 2015. Photo credit: Lauren Coffey & Cliff Jette/The Gazette