Cook County Addresses Rise in Suicide Deaths Among Black Residents

August 4, 2020

The alarming rise in suicides among African American residents in Cook County was addressed today by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar and Cook County Health Director of Behavioral Health Dr. Diane Washington.

President Preckwinkle says the African American community has borne an alarming brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid overdose deaths, surging homicide rates and now - suicides.

“There have been more suicides so far this year in the Black community than in all of 2019,” said President Preckwinkle. “Most notably we are seeing an increase in youth suicide. The youngest victim this year was just nine years old.”

According to data from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, 2020 is on pace to be the worst year for suicides in the Black community in a decade. The Office has already confirmed 58 suicide deaths – that’s compared to a total of 56 in all of 2019. Nearly 80 percent were men. 40 percent were under the age of 30. Three were under 18. The youngest, a 9-year-old boy, was discovered by family on July 5.

“While our office is used to dealing with death, it is impossible to come to terms with a child who felt so hopeless he believed that his only recourse was to take his own life. As I’ve said many times now, the deaths we deal with in our office are by and large preventable,” said Dr. Arunkumar. “We must sound the alarm once again - this time for suicides.”

While there is no single explanation for the rising number of suicides, the CDC reports increases in anxiety and depression among Black Americans in general amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is not surprising that the communities that have suffered the most are the ones who have the least. Disinvestment, red lining and systemic racism have culminated in a crisis that once again hits the African American community hardest,” President Preckwinkle said. “It’s time to shine a light on this and keep the conversation going around depression and anxiety. We must do better.”

Cook County Health has seen and treated many patients from all ethnic backgrounds, ages and genders for COVID-19, but also for anxiety and depression due to the pandemic. According to Cook County Health Director of Behavioral Health Dr. Diane Washington, anxiety and depression among our Black adults and youth is not something new.

Dr. Washington says the rise in suicides among Black residents this year began even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s stay-at-home order. The deaths overwhelmingly occurred in Chicago, often on the South Side and the West Side in neighborhoods with high rates of unemployment and poverty, which are communities that have also been disproportionately hit by the pandemic in terms of the number of deaths and the resulting economic devastation.

In 2017, Cook County Health began integrating behavioral health services into its care models to better support patients. To accommodate this integrated care model, social workers were placed in each outpatient health center to ensure patients receive continuity of care for both their mental and physical well-being.

Cook County Health has taken a system-wide approach to integrate behavioral health into its primary care model and believes conditions like depression or anxiety are no different than medical conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.

“As we continue to move to find a new normal, we are committed to maximizing the mental well-being of our patients and all Cook County residents through services in our health systems and Cook County neighborhoods,” said Dr. Washington.

There are two Community Triage Centers in Cook County – one located in Austin and the other in Roseland that serve patients with more immediate mental health and substance abuse needs. These centers even allow walk-in patients and connect more serious patients to a hospital setting. For more information about clinic hours and services, visit Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services at Cook County Health.

If you have experienced suicidal thoughts, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Someone is there to help.

To access data regarding suicide-related deaths in Cook County, visit the Medical Examiner’s case archive.