Black adults exposed to various forms of gun violence may be at significant risk of suicidal ideation at some point during their lifetime, according to the results of a new study correlating gun violence and personal well-being. 

The suicide rate among Black Americans increased by 58 percent between 2011 and 2021, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and while that increase sparked attention, there has been a gap in the research available examining just how gun violence has contributed to that rise. For Daniel Semenza, the lead researcher of a study published last week in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the mission of his work was to identify and understand where and how the two intersect, an approach that could result in an equity-driven response.

“Starting in 2018, the rate of Black suicide has continually gone up — this was happening at the same time there was this sharp increase in gun homicide — and this was the first step in seeing if there is a relationship between interpersonal violence and self-directed violence,” said Semenza, who conducted the study with his fellow researchers at the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University.

Black people in America experience interpersonal firearm violence at disproportionate rates. While research has shown that racism, socioeconomics, and gentrification all contribute to gun violence rates in communities nationwide, evidence also shows that Black Americans are the most susceptible to these factors.

The Rutgers team conducted a national survey of 3,015 Black respondents between the ages of 18 and 94 and found that nearly 10 percent of all respondents had either prepared for suicide attempts, attempted suicide, or both. Those surveyed represent a diverse pool: Fifty-five percent identified as female, and over a third graduated from high school. Of those surveyed, nearly 21 percent were between 18 and 29 years old, while a quarter of the respondents were at least 60. 

Find Support

Help is Available 24 Hours a Day

Text 741741

988, press 1, or text 838255

Understand warning signs.

To measure suicidal ideation, the researchers used the Self-Injurious Thoughts and Behavior Interview, which is a structured series of questions widely used by researchers to assess suicide risk and self-harming thoughts and behaviors. From there, they took subsamples of the data, looking at individual and cumulative forms of gun violence exposure to analyze the relationship between interpersonal violence and suicide risk. 

The researchers categorized exposure using four different types of individual gun violence: threatened with a gun; shot with a gun; knew a family member or friend who had been shot; or had either witnessed or heard about a shooting. They found that over half of those surveyed had been exposed to at least one form of gun violence, but 12 percent had been exposed to at least three forms, which increased the likelihood of suicidal ideation. 

Of the nearly 20 percent of respondents in the subset who experienced suicidal ideation, the odds of preparing for a suicide attempt were nearly four times higher than among those who had not been shot; being threatened with a firearm more than doubled the odds of actually attempting suicide, compared to respondents who had not been threatened.

The results illustrate a correlation experienced by community members, activists, and gun violence survivors, but which is rarely tracked: firearm homicide and suicide are related.

Emerging research is showing that people of color experience vicarious trauma within stressful environments, said Michael A. Lindsey, the dean of the NYU Silver School of Social Work, who is at the forefront of examining the increase of Black suicide risk. “And living in these peritraumatic and stressful environments, where they are constantly seeing trauma, are factors that influence a person’s well-being. And they can’t be understated.” 

Lindsey’s work, and the Rutgers research, come at a critical time. Beyond adults, Black youth suicide has increased by a total of 144 percent in the past 13 years, and Black girls’ annual percent increase rate, at 6.6 percent, is more than double that of Black boys at 2.8 percent. 

For urban communities of color, those most likely to be exposed to gun violence in the U.S., accessing mental health care can be difficult. Stigma, limited mental healthcare facilities, and racism all contribute to significant barriers facing Black Americans who seek treatment, and finding care providers who identify with one’s race or culture is even more unlikely. Data from the American Psychological Association revealed in 2019 that only 3 percent of the psychology workforce is Black. Similarly, data from the American Psychiatric Association found that only 2 percent of the nation’s psychiatrists are Black.

“The places where gun violence is the highest are where access to mental healthcare and treatment is lower,” said Semenza, the Rutgers researcher. “There is also real concern that the traditional method of psychotherapy, or talking to a counselor, isn’t always on the table or is the best method of coping. There may be alternative methods of healing that we may have not tapped into.”

Tanya Sharpe, a University of Toronto professor and social worker who has been studying gun violence for nearly three decades, said the results underscore how imperative it is that data on Black communities continue.

“The production of publications and research that further substantiate what we have been seeing in communities is so important, and that is what this study does by being racially focused,” said Sharpe, who also serves as the founding director of the CRIB initiative, which studies gun violence in America and abroad. 

Sharpe comes to this work after witnessing the effects of gun violence exposure and the lack of solutions for Black Americans while working as a community health specialist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We don’t parse out the different forms of violence that Black people are exposed to, we just lump it all together,” she explained. “To understand and address the complexity of different forms of violence Black people navigate, we have to identify them, and in these analyses we have to include the disproportionate reality of structural violence in the form of anti-Black racism as a contributing factor.”