Public Enemy No.1 Mental Health Crisis: The Driving Force Behind Youth Violence and Suicide

Style News Wire | 6/12/2008, 5:38 p.m.
Almost without exception, major cities in America are seeing record numbers of young people, mostly African- American males, dying due ...

Almost without exception, major cities in America are seeing record numbers of young people, mostly African- American males, dying due to gun violence. Although high-profile school shootings have increased public concern for student safety, school deaths account for less than 1% of homicides among school-aged youth.

How long before we start to see this as a public health epidemic? Let’s look at the mental health component.

Mental health affects how young people think, feel, act, learn and engage in relationships. It affects self-esteem, the ability to evaluate situations; to make choices; to handle stress, relate to other people, and make decisions.

Four million children and adolescents in this country suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes difficulty functioning at home, school, and with peers. It is estimated that one in 10 young people suffer from mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment. However, in any given year, it is estimated that fewer than one in five such children receives needed treatment.

We should call for increases in mental health services available to young people. Check this:  An alarming 65% of boys and 75% of girls in juvenile detention have at least one mental disorder. We are incarcerating youth with mental disorders, some as young as 8 years old, rather than identifying their disorders early and intervening with appropriate treatment!  Early and effective treatment can prevent delinquent and violent youth from future violence and crime.

The psychological effect of being victimized by or witnessing violence is a major contributing factor to violent behavior. Youth violence is a widespread problem in this country. Consider the following statistics:

• About 9% of murders in the U.S. were committed by youth under 18. Youth under 18 accounted for about 15% of violent crime arrests.

• Black males aged 18-24 have the highest homicide offense rates.

• Over 750,000 young people ages 10 to 24 are treated nationally in emergency departments for injuries sustained due to violence.

• The suicide rate among young people is staggering  and on the rise. It is no coincidence that the under-addressed fact that gang members,  due to feeling of hopelessness and lack of opportunity, are often suicidal.  Their mental and emotional pain is the root cause of their harmful behavior—toward others and themselves.

Social factors compound the health problems of young African-American men,  and deserves greater attention than thus far received.  They die at a rate 1.5 times that of young white men, and almost three times that of young Asian men. While the death rate drops for men ages 25 to 29 for most groups, it continues to rise among African- Americans.

Trust me,  it’s not because young brothers are at the bottom of the evolutionary chain.  It has everything to do with health disparities.  It is universally accepted that education, access, and socio-economic factors play a role in reducing the causes of death where African-Americans suffer disproportionately.  Why don’t we apply the same logic with the epidemic of youth violence? Throughout history, “epidemics” were thought to involve outbreaks of acute infectious disease, such as measles, polio, or strep throat. If youth violence were a flu epidemic, all sorts of vaccines and preventive measures would be implemented because these diseases have risk factors.

The same should be done regarding the likelihood that a young person will become violent.

The problems are real and tragic,  yet the solutions are clear. We cannot ignore the behaviors and risk factors to this epidemic. The solutions are within us in how we treat each other. Let us use our pain to teach ourselves about ourselves and how to heal.

—Stay Strong!

Terrie M. Williams is a clinical social worker,  inspirational author and speaker.  Her next book Black Pain:  It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, considered a groundbreaking work,  will be published by Scribner in January 2008.

Glenn Ellis lectures and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics, including health education and health promotion particularly relevant to the African-American community.