UAMS Researcher Studies Steady Increase in Suicide Rates, Depression for Arkansas’ Black Population

By Kev' Moye

“Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the numbers reflect that the Black community is being disproportionately impacted by COVID in several ways,” Porter said. “That came to mind as I began to study recent national suicide data. Once I noticed that Arkansas was in line with the national trend of seeing an increase in suicides since the start of the pandemic — I also recognized that Arkansas’ Black population is experiencing a massive increase in suicide.”

Porter referenced how traditionally, suicide in the Black community is not common and rarely discussed. However, the rising suicide rate, which is linked to hardships caused by the pandemic, warrants a new outlook. Since 2015, the suicide rate among African Americans in Arkansas has more than doubled; and between 2019 and 2020, the suicide rate increased by 55%.

“In many instances, Black people often dealt with a lot of stress and difficulties on a daily basis — even before the pandemic,” Porter said. “Once you add in the stress caused by the pandemic, it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. With the pandemic, there are deaths, loss of jobs, loss of good health, changes in standard of living. It’s a lot to overcome. Unfortunately, for a growing number of people, suicide is becoming an option. That’s disproportionately happening in Arkansas’ African American community.”

COVID-19 and its association with depression is well-documented. According to the World Health Organization, untreated depression can lead to suicide.

The America’s Health Rankings, United Health Foundation show the national rate for African American depression is 16.1%. However, since 2020, the depression rate for Arkansas’ African American population is near 20%.

Meanwhile, Arkansas’ white residents have a depression rate of 25.3% while Hispanics were reported at 13.6%.

“According to the America’s Health Ranking Report, one out of every four white Arkansans report being told by a medical professional that they are depressed,” Porter said. “Similarly, nearly one in five African American Arkansans report the same. Those statistics have major public health implications regarding mental health and suicide. To address this, we, as public health researchers and practitioners are stressing the importance of seeking mental health care and working with providers to help people who may be struggling with depression.”

Financial instability caused by job losses is also among the major fallouts of the pandemic, especially for African Americans.

Data from the foundation shows that nationally, 27.2% of the people who died of suicide were from a household that had an annual income of $25,000 or less. In Arkansas, 33.5% of the African Americans who died due to suicide were from a low-income household.

Additionally, since 2015, the average age of African American Arkansans who died from suicide dropped from 44 to 31 years old. For white Arkansans, the average age has remained constant at 47 during the same period.

Suicide is on the rise for the state’s youngest African American residents as well.

“For Arkansas’ pediatric population, about 3% of white Arkansans who died of suicide in 2020 were under 18 years old,” Porter said. “Compare that to African American Arkansans — the rate is near 14%. Why African American kids are taking their lives at such a high rate — we still don’t know.

“What we must keep in mind is that there are youth who’ve also lost someone due to COVID. They may not deal with it as well as an adult can. That’s why this may be an issue for a good period of time.”

“Community members checking on their family, friends, neighbors or co-workers who show signs of depression or abnormal anger is important to addressing the problem,” Porter said.

Mental health professionals also play an important role.

“Having competent mental health professionals who can relate to African American people on a cultural level is important,” Porter said.

There are numerous mental health assistance options in Arkansas including UAMS Health ARConnectNow or the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Porter said people must be willing to use the various resources to help remedy a mental health issue.

“We have to be transparent and receptive to getting help with our mental health,” he said. “Since the start of the pandemic, it’s alarming how depression and suicide are disproportionately harming Arkansas’ African American community. We must take caution regarding our mental health just as we do our physical health. Correctly addressing this situation will take an all-hands-on-deck approach.”