Interview with Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) David J. Johns
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 1/13/20- The Congressional Black Caucus has released a report, “Ring The Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America,” to Congress. The National Black Justice Coalition is honored to have participated in a working group to ensure that the diverse and intersectional needs of Black youth, specifically Black LGBTQ+ youth were considered.
The report found:
- The rate of suicide deaths has significantly increased among Black males ages 5-11 years old;
- Black youth under 13 years are 2 times more likely to die by suicide compared to their white counterparts; and The suicide death rate among Black youth has been found to be increasing faster than any other racial/ethnic group. David Johns, Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition and Emergency Task Force member discusses the report with the Hollywood Times and its implications for young Black LGBTQ and same gender loving children. David is a former elementary school teacher and former White House staffer.
Tell us about your background and how it led you to become the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition.
Anyone who knows me knows that I care deeply and passionately about our babies–about the health and well-being of children who did not ask to be born. I’ve spent the better part of my professional career as an educator and a policymaker, teaching, speaking, and writing to challenge myths and re-frame narrative so that all Black people, especially Black people with intersectional identities–Black people who are also LGBTQ and same gender loving, Black people who have disabilities, Black people for whom English is not their first language and the like–have equal access to the opportunities that are presented to most white people in America. After having the pleasure of leading the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans under the leadership of Barack H Obama, where I partnered with the National Black Justice Coalition, to produce the first-of-its-kind summit on Black LGBTQ+ youth, I am honored to leverage my unique skills and ability to stand in the gap as an advocate for our members of my community by leading the National Black Justice Coalition.
What do you see daily being an Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC?)
Since Trump took office, I have seen continued erosion of the support that has…had existed throughout the country for issues affecting LGBTQ/SGL people. What everyone should be clear about is that under the Obama Administration there were increases in the number of Americans who were supportive of civil union/the right for LGBTQ/SGL people to enjoy the same legal benefits bestowed upon our non-queer LGBTQ/SGL counterparts and other non-discrimination protections, things that we now talk about connected to the Equality Act. Now it’s incredibly important to pass legislation and provide support to improve people’s ability to provide protection for LGBTQ/SGL people, especially in states where it is still legal to discriminate against people based on actual or perceived sexual identity, gender, orientation, or expression.
Since the transition of political power in 2017, there’s been an increase in very public, very problematic, vitriol and hate speech and practices that are used by ignorant and bigoted people to fan the flames of racism, homophobia, transphobia, transmisogynoir with affects Black Trans people in a particular way. LGBTQ/SGL people, Black LGBTQ/SGL people are dying and this does not have to be our reality. Daily, I witness attacks on our community at every level–from the Oval Office to Gubernatorial offices throughout the country as well as local and Municipal leaders, including some police forces that take extreme measures to attempt to police and terrorize Black queer people. This must change, we have the ability to address this.
Are there running themes in our society that are alarming to you?
Yes, the reality that young people, young Black people, in particular, are dying by suicide and experiencing suicidality–thoughts connected to suicide at increased rates, over the last two decades, is alarming and should be concerning to everyone. One of the findings of the report “Ring The Alarm,” is that for young people in every other racial/ethnic group rates of suicidality have decreased, while they have increased for Black youth. This should alarm everyone. To be Black in America, as James Baldwin said decades ago, is to almost always be in a constant state of rage, justifiable rage giving the history and vestiges of white supremacy and anti Blackness still at play, but at present, at a time when xenophobia is rampant, and when hate speech is used by the President to divide rather than unify, we should all be concerned about not only the data but the children for whom the data represents.
I have never met a child who asked to be born and for that reason alone all caring and concerned adults owe it to our babies to ensure they feel and are safe and supported–all of them. Too many children experience challenges on the way to and from school, challenges that would break the average adults. It’s more likely that these children are asked “what’s wrong with you?” rather than “what’s wrong?” We can fix this by simply listening to the babies, listening with love.
Can you share about the recent report by the CBC New Report on Black Youth Suicide?
Early in 2019 Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), an amazing leader representing New Jersey, thought it appropriate to respond to the cries from our children. The Congressional Black Caucus established an emergency Taskforce on Black youth, mental health and suicide. And after a series of roundtables and events, both in Washington DC and throughout the country–one of which included a roundtable of young people, invited to talk about the mental health challenges they face, which are often overlooked but that young black people are facing in regard to mental health and suicide a working group produced a report titled “Ring the Alarm,” which was submitted to Congress in December.
There are at least three important findings worth highlighting.
Black youth are dying by suicide at extreme rates and the reality is that that does not have to be the case. While there is a lot that is known about suicidality among young people there is much more to be learned about Black youth in particular. A lot of the research, especially large national samples, does not include enough Black people so that we have more information about how we are uniquely impacted.
Too many parents, and adults responsible for the learning and development of young people, are unaware of the challenges that young people face and their mental health needs. Too few are supported in learning the warning signs connected to depression and suicidality. Too many are afraid to engage in conversations about mental health. Some of this has to do with the fear that talking about suicide, suicidality or depression will encourage suicidal thoughts and actions and that’s just simply not the case. That’s not what the data shows or bears out and my research shows that young people desire to have adults ask questions about their experiences and to listen with love. We have to talk more about things that can sometimes make us uncomfortable. This a significant finding and one worth interrogating.
And then the last one is that we have a responsibility to do more to address the mental health needs of Black youth. It startled me to read that while black girls are more likely to think about and engage in suicidal thoughts or suicidality, Black boys are most likely to attempt suicide. Thinking about young people struggling with unresolved mental health needs rather than experiencing joy is beyond heartbreaking. We are not having enough conversations, that are informed by data, about Black youth and their mental health needs. Too many of our babies are suffering in silence. I hope we take the lessons from this report and use them to do even more so that we can ensure that all Black children, youth, and young adults have access to the information and the support needed so they can thrive.
What is happening in your view? What should the American people know?
What everyone should know is that our babies are experiencing trauma. This is the first generation of Americans to experience mass school shootings, for example. Ignoring or wishing that young people don’t have mental health needs will not work. I want us all to do a better job of pushing past the stigma associated with mental health, especially in Black communities. Most adults and almost every Black person in America can vividly describe the sting of stigma, and the trauma-informed by racism, white supremacy, and anti Blackness. Young people are not immune to these feelings and there is data that shows schools have become more hostile spaces since Trump took office. All of this to say we have an obligation to better address the mental health needs of young people–especially young Black people.
The Congressional Black Caucus has released a report, “Ring The Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America How are you and your team part of this?
The National Black Justice Coalition is proud to have served on the working group that was responsible for supporting the work of the Emergency Task Force and producing Ring The Alarm.
What that meant for us is ensuring that whenever there were conversations about Black youth they were inclusive and intersectional. I was honored to deliver formal testimony at the opening congressional hearing for the Emergency Task Force.
We also helped to organize a youth roundtable, where 5 youth leaders offer their testimony to help inform the record and to answer questions from Members of Congress. Justin Calhoun, a member of the National Black Justice Coalition’s Youth and Young Adult Advisory Committee, provided testimony describing the often-ignored needs of Black LGBTQ+ and same gender loving youth and young adults.
The primary focus of our work was the production of the report. In 2020, NBJC will use the report to supplement our work with students and schools. I am excited to leverage my background as an elementary school and college educator and as a Columbia University-trained researcher to help educators, teachers, and school leaders employ practices and policies that ensure all students, especially Black LGBTQ/SGL students feel safe, engaged, and supported. All of this to say, we are excited about raising awareness about the mental health needs of our youth.
What are some of the misnomers about Black Youth Suicide in America today?
A general misnomer continues to be that suicide is something that white kids do. Too many people feel that suicide and suicidality is not something that Black kids experience and the data suggests otherwise. While rates of suicide have decreased for white students and young people from other racial/ethnic groups, they have increased for Black youth. We should all ask why. We should then ask what we can do about it.
I want us all to do a better job of acknowledging that while many of us are told to take our problems to God and do not discuss our problems outside of our household, we are obligated to seek support we need to be happy, healthy and whole. What I mean by this is that we can take our burdens to the altar on Sunday and we should be able to find a culturally competent mental health provider, or team of providers to help as well.
What is the media doing right? What is it doing wrong?
The media is not doing enough to talk about mental health generally, and then the mental health needs of young people, young Black people, more specifically. We are not talking enough about the trauma that young people, young Black people, experience daily. Consider, and I believe I mentioned this previously, young people have been born into a generation that is familiar with mass school shootings. The implications of young people having drills for school shooters–when I was a student we prepared for natural disasters like earthquakes and fire’s not mass shootings. I say this to acknowledge that while there have been significant positive advancements in recent years there are significant challenges facing young people–young Black people that must be addressed. The media has an opportunity, perhaps a responsibility, to raise awareness and to help equip parents, educators, caring and concerned adults, more generally, with the skills and information needed to respond to mental health needs.
I’m thankful for the coverage of the Task Force activity and the report provided by Black media and would love to see more Black journalists and news outlets that reach and speak to and sometimes for Black communities, address the stigma and shame associated with mental health in our community and to normalize conversations about mental health needs as well as accessing support.
Do you have any possible solutions to the problem?
To the problem of young people not being heard or listened to-the solution is to listen. We must first do a better job of creating spaces where young people feel comfortable sharing. It is not practical for us to think that young people will feel comfortable, or talk to us about sensitive topics if we haven’t done the work to ensure they trust us and feel safe sharing. First, we create the conditions/environment where they feel comfortable talking to us then we do the tough work of listening. Too often adults talk to young people to tell them what we know or what we’ve done to improve their lives. Adults must learn to listen not to respond but to learn. Beyond learning to listen to the babies I want professionals–the medical-industrial complex to prioritize equipping mental health practitioners and medical providers with the intersectional cultural competence needed to meet the diverse needs of children, youth, and young adults.
Can you please share some stats from your office?
Key Findings From Report:
- The rate of suicide deaths has significantly increased among Black males ages 5-11 years old and Black youth under 13 years are 2 times more likely to die by suicide compared to their white counterparts.
- The suicide death rate among Black youth has been found to be increasing faster than any other racial/ethnic group.
- Over 3,000 youth, ages 10 to 19 years old died by suicide in 2017. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among this age group in 2017.
Key Risk Factors (that increase psychopathology or a problem behavior) include:
- The presence of a psychiatric disorder, gender (girls are more likely to attempt suicide and boys are more likely to die from suicide), prior attempts, being a victim of bullying and bullying others, socio-economic factors, family functioning, exposure to suicide, and access to means.
- Youth at risk for being bullied include youth with disabilities, learning differences, sexual/gender, sexual/gender identity differences, and cultural differences.
- Black youth are:
- Less likely to be screened for and receive outpatient treatment, even after suicide attempts.
- Mistrust of health professionals, lack of competence, general stigma, and impediments to service (poorer quality care, premature treatment termination, and poor engagement) impact access and treatment.
- Communal support matters–a sense of connectedness and mattering can serve as protective factors
Thank you David for your valuable perspective on this serious subject. We appreciate your time.