Study: African American Women More at Risk For Suicide and Mental Illness


A three year old study into the effects that gender and racial discrimination have on African American women has been in the news recently due to a tragedy that has made national headlines. The study found that while the suicide rate of African Americans is lower than that of any of the other racial groups that make up the American population, the study found that African American women are much less likely to seek help treating their mental health issues.

The Sandra Bland Connection

First published in a 2012 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly, the study, which is entitled Too Much of a Good Thing? Psychosocial Resources, Gendered Racism, and Suicidal Ideation among Low Socioeconomic Status African American Women, was conducted by three sociologists based in the British University of Kentucky to gain a better understanding of the suicidal risk factors that are unique to African American women. The subject of depression and suicidal ideation among black women has been in the news because of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died while detained in the Waller Country, Texas jail after she was arrested during a traffic stop that some commentators have argued was racially motivated. Three days after her arrest, Bland was found hanged in her cell and a medical examiner for neighboring Harris County controversially ruled that Bland had killed herself.

Suffering in Silence

As part of an investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death, it was discovered that Bland had struggled with depression in the months before her death. The fact that black women are statically unlikely to commit suicide made some activists and journalist question the medical examiner’s findings. However, the study found that while African Americans only accounted for 5.4 percent of U.S. suicides committed in 2013, they are 45 percent less likely to seek treatment for depression as compared to the national average. The National Alliance for Mental Illness has found that silent suffering stems from the fact that black women feel cultural pressure to conform to the stereotype of the strong African American woman, who is unbowed by entrenched racial and gendered discrimination.

Socioeconomic and Historical Barriers to Adequate Treatment

As suggested by the study’s title, the fact that black women largely fall on the lower end of American’s socioeconomic spectrum means that statistically, they have less access to treatment for mental health issues. Around 20 percent of African Americans don’t have health insurance and therefore cannot benefit from subsidized mental health counseling. And the U.S. medical establishment’s long history of giving the black community a substandard level of care plays a significant role in keeping African Americans from seeking out the treatment they need.

A Reason to be Hopeful

While the study’s findings are distressing, its very existence is reason enough to be hopeful about the future. As one of the study’s authors, professor Brea L. Perry noted, “These findings demonstrate that it is not sufficient to simply study African American women as one small part of an aggregated sample composed largely of whites.” Ideally, future studies into the specific mental health issues affecting African American women can produce coping strategies that will lessen the deleterious effects of cultural stigmas regarding race and gender.