In writing about Black boys, Alexander: Or, The Effect of Child Empathy on Black Boys, I grew weary of the usual dysfunctional frame of discussion around the subject. Even at the table of the World Economic Forum last week, where we were among the top 50 nations in terms of social capital, there was little conversation about the protection and welfare of children. Very few of my fellow panelists would stop to talk to me when I asked why the developed world’s biggest benefactor of care and intervention is investing less and less in kids in the developing world. I find the response always to be the same. “It’s the money,” the most common excuse, “not the people.”
Then there was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, much of which burned, flooded and overran its most vulnerable young people. We all learned that the least affluent and poorest among us, who live in the most dangerous and inhospitable of places, are at an extraordinary risk when it comes to injury and fatality. This was a singularly dramatic example of the depths of poverty that pale into insignificance when compared to contemporary suicide – and America’s poor are particularly vulnerable. The 2007 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on suicide prevalence in an estimated 100 countries found America the fourth-most-dangerous country in the world for suicidal teenagers.
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This report and others have shown clearly that, in the history of American society, one in 20 of our young people under the age of 18 kill themselves. This was a higher suicide rate than South Africa and Japan, as well as every country in Europe except Latvia. By comparison, only 8.2% of young people under 18 died in Nigeria. And yet suicide is seen in the West as a major pathology that only results in inferior living conditions for the individual. Rather than being swept under the carpet as a “functional” problem, suicide remains a matter of personal responsibility. In contrast, where suicide is most common is in the most socially sensitive of places, the poorer communities – those where there is the least infrastructure and, as a result, the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
When I introduced the topic of suicide in my piece earlier this year, social media was swamped with responses in both the encouraging and less than encouraging realms. Some said suicidal young people need tough love from their mothers, and others that even if the poor weren’t poor – the de facto end of the spectrum, the poverty line – they are just as vulnerable. But this understanding is so totally at odds with the current field-tested treatment for suicidal young people that we’ve already, perversely, stigmatised the ones who are already suffering.
How is it that the continent with the world’s largest debt-to-GDP ratio takes on billions to help feed children in the third world?
The stigma around suicide is one thing, but it is disturbingly complicated by the problem that almost every suicide story I’ve heard is the same story over and over again: a poverty-stricken young person who is expected to use the very education they have obtained as a way to avoid that fate, faces devastating economic circumstances in their home country. Their country turns to the world’s richest country to plug holes in its hole.
This exclusion of the children who need the most help for these suffering situations is nothing short of perverse. What should it say about the world that some countries spend billions of dollars to help feed children in the third world?
Suicide in the developed world is a preventable disease, no matter how they try to get away with it. For all of the appalling poverty in Nigeria and across many countries, the danger that my daughter, my grandson, my cousin, and thousands of others face in the developed world each year, is nothing compared to what youth growing up in West Africa face. A suicide epidemic – and for it to be broadcast like a joke – is what happens when we eliminate the only disease that kills more people in the richest countries than any other, and approach it as a normal morbidity.
• Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer for Slate. Jamelle.Bouie.Nation.com