10-Year-Old Girl’s Death Brings Awareness to Rising Suicide Rates Among Black Youth, Experts Highlight the Warning Signs

Members of the Salt Lake City, Utah, community are still reeling after Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor, 10, took her life last week after reportedly being harassed, bullied, and called the n-word by her classmates.

“Izzy’s parents did what they could, they were attentive to their child and noticed behavioral shifts, and they did reach out to teachers, school officials, to try and address that,” said licensed Salt Lake City psychologist, Eliot Sykes, Ph.d.

Tichenor’s death comes roughly two weeks after the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division ordered the Davis School District in Salt Lake City to address complaints of racial discrimination including widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian-American students.

The School District sent Atlanta Black Star a statement on the matter saying in part, “the district is currently establishing an independent team to review the processes we have in place and the allegations that Izzy was racially harassed and discriminated against.”

The district also says, “every school administrator began extensive training in investigating, assessing and responding to all racial harassment allegations.”

Tichenor’s death also highlights an alarming problem for Black youth, suicide rates are climbing.

A study published in September in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, examined 1,810 Black youth who died by suicide between the ages of 5- and 17-years-old between 2003 and 2017. Researchers found a significant “upward trend in suicide among all age groups, with the largest annual percentage change for teens 15 to 17-years-old. The annual percentage increase among Black girls was 6.6%, twice that of Black boys.”

In a different study published in May in JAMA Network Open, which tracked Black males and females ages 15 to 24 years old between 2013 and 2019, the same startling trend showed a growing suicide rate. Black males suicide rate rose from 12.2 per 100,000 in 2013 to 17.9 per 100,000 in 2019. Among Black females, the suicide rate went from 2.7 per 100,000 in 2013 to 4.3 per 100,000 in 2019.

Racial discrimination, trauma and violence in communities and stigma surrounding mental health can contribute to Black youth struggling with mental health. Sykes says warning signs were likely missed in Tichenor’s case by school staff because of the demographics of the predominantly white school district and a lack of cultural awareness.

“My own studies and understanding are there’s nothing that really supports these teachers and school officials in engaging in antiracist behavior, their training doesn’t, their lived experience doesn’t, especially if they’re born and raised in Utah where Black folks are 1.7- 1.8 percent of the population,” said Sykes.

Sykes says it is important for parents and caregivers of Black youth to pay close attention to changes in behavior noting some may express themselves in ways hard to ignore such as becoming more irritable or acting out, but more subtle forms of expression can also take hold.

Charmain Jackman, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in Boston, Massachusetts with 17 years of experience working with school aged children. She says adults should learn to listen to children more acutely as they often see the warning signs of their peers suffering from mental health challenges first.

“One of the biggest things is having the other students be educated on some of the warning signs and we would often get referrals from students that would say, hey, my friend just posted something online and I’m really worried about them,” said Jackman.

Members of Tichenor’s family did not return requests for an interview for this report.

If you or someone you know are at risk of suicide, seek out a trustworthy person, a mental health professional or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

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