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Incoming faculty member speaks on suicide prevention efforts 

story by Vivienne Serret, News & Observer; photos courtesy of News & Observer 

Topic Warning: This story contains reporting about suicides, a topic that will be disturbing to some readers. Learn more about how UNC is approaching suicide prevention and research

In this report from the News & Observer, incoming University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work Assistant Professor Sonyia Richardson shared her research into black youth and suicide during the Statewide Summit on Suicide Prevention hosted by the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute. Richardson joins the School on July 1 and is a part of the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute, whose long-term mission is to provide accessible alternatives to every person in North Carolina who is contemplating suicide. Associate Professor Lisa de Saxe Zerden also presented during the statewide summit.

When seven students were reported to have died by suicide during NC State University’s 2022-2023 school year, peers and faculty found themselves struggling to find a light in the shadow of grief. 

Sonyia Richardson headshot
Incoming University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work Assistant Professor Sonyia Richardson shared research she’s led on black youth and suicide with the News & Observer.
Three of the students who took their own lives were in the School of Engineering, The News & Observer reported. 

In 2021, at least three students died by suicide in one semester at UNC-Chapel Hill, The Daily Tar Heel and the Technician reported. But neither of the universities have implemented a tracking system to follow the exact number of students who die during their time at the institutions, including those who die by suicide, according to the Daily Tar Heel and Technician report. 

And the problem goes far beyond college campuses. A 12-month project aims to reduce suicides across North Carolina, and on Thursday its organizers convened the Statewide Summit on Suicide Prevention. Held at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Friday Center, the summit drew more than 400 attendees from 61 counties to hear speakers and panels address mental health challenges and resources aiding suicide prevention. 

“Our kids are dying,” said Sonyia Richardson, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at UNC Charlotte. 

Richardson, who is part of the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute, said her research found that nationally, Black youth have the highest rate of suicides and overall highest increase in suicides over the last two decades. She noted that in 2019, the Congressional Black Caucus published the Ring the Alarm report highlighting the increase in suicide rates for Black children, deeming it a national crisis. 

According to the report, Black youth under 13 are “twice as likely to die by suicide,” and Black males “from 5 to 11 years old, are more likely to die by suicide compared to their white peers.” 

“There are interventions being put in place to specifically focus on the needs of these youth,” Richardson said. “(We’re focusing on) decreasing these disparities for all youth, specifically those who are a little more vulnerable.” 

The Suicide Prevention Institute began in 2022, and grew into a team of more than 30 members by April 2023, according to its website

One of the panels at the summit addresses reducing access to potentially lethal means, such as firearms, poisoning and overdose. Another focuses on “community action.” 

Mona Townes, a licensed clinical social worker and addictions specialist, said trauma is one of the biggest contributing factors leading to suicidal thoughts or suicide. 

“From not having enough food, experiencing racial discrimination or unhealthy housing situations,” Townes said. “Not just being raped or molestation — any type of trauma can contribute to suicidal ideation, or a mental health disorder or substance abuse disorder.” 

Townes said the lack of socialization during the COVID-19 pandemic impacted many youth and led to feelings of isolation. She said she wants the public to receive training and educate themselves on the warning signs of mental illness and suicide, and praised Mental Health First Aid, a national program teaching how to respond to those signs. 

“(These trainings) are invaluable,” Townes said. “They’re for anybody.” 

Samantha Meltzer-Brody, a keynote speaker at the summit and chair of UNC’s department of psychiatry, said conversations surrounding mental illness and health are the most public they’ve ever been. 

“I am encouraged by the young generation who see mental health as one of the most critical issues they face,” Meltzer-Brody said. 

In previous generations, mental illness was a taboo, highly stigmatized topic. But now, from celebrities to athletes, people are openly talking about their struggles with suicidal thoughts. 

“For us to make real change, we have to talk about it,” Meltzer-Brody said. 

Though she said society’s problems can’t be fixed immediately, she believes things are moving in a positive direction. She wants the summit to educate attendees. 

“I want people to come away with a message of hope,” she said. 

Data on suicides 

Within the last five years, N.C. State has faced about eight student deaths a year. About three are students reported to have died by suicide, according to an 89-page report published in February 2023 by NC State’s mental health taskforce. 

In 2020, North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services reported that of 2,423 violent deaths, 1,436 were suicides. 

In 2021, the number only went down by 24. 

Meltzer-Brody, who has been a psychiatrist for nearly 30 years, said about 800,000 people die globally from suicide every year. 

If you or someone you are concerned about is at risk, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by texting or dialing 988. Or call 1-800-273-TALK. The National Alliance of Mental Illness North Carolina also offers virtual support groups and programming across the state. 

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