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With 2020 on pace to be the worst year in a decade for Black suicides, Cook County officials sound alarm on yet another ‘horrifying’ pandemic

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle at a news conference on March 27, 2020.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle at a news conference on March 27, 2020. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)

As the number of Black people who died by suicide so far this year in Cook County surged past 2019′s entire total, county officials say they are seeing an all-too-familiar story of entrenched disinvestment driving another public health crisis.

At least 246 people have died by suicide in 2020, 58 of whom were Black, county officials announced in a Tuesday news conference. In all of 2019, 56 Black people died from suicide, and this year’s final toll among is on pace to become the worst in a decade.

The youngest victim so far in 2020 was a 9-year-old Black boy who died in Chicago last month, according to the medical examiner’s office.

“This is horrifying. It’s not surprising the communities that have suffered the most are the ones who also have the least,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said. “The disinvestment, the redlining, the systemic racism has culminated in a crisis that once again hits the African American community the hardest. We have no choice but to do better.”

Though the majority of people who died by suicide in Cook County over the past decade, including this year, were white, Black suicides are on pace to double from last year, Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar said.

The announcement by county officials comes a week and a half after The Trace first reported a sharp increase in suicides among Black people.

Most of the Black suicides are concentrated in the South and West sides, Arunkumar said. Almost 80% of the victims were men and 40% were under 30 years old. Three were children, including the 9-year-old, whose death left Arunkumar’s office particularly shaken, she said.

“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,” Arunkumar said. “As I’ve said that many times now, the deaths we deal with in our office are by and large preventable.”

At the same time, the medical examiner’s office workload eclipsed 9,500 cases for 2020 so far — compared to the average year that brings fewer than 6,300 cases, Arunkumar said. (The office investigates certain cases out of the annual 40,000-or-so deaths in Cook County.) There have been more than 4,900 COVID-19 deaths, likely more than 1,300 opioid overdose deaths and close to 550 homicides this year.

All four of these public health crises — coronavirus, opioid overdoses, homicides and suicides — are especially prevalent on the South and West sides, Arunkumar said.

Preckwinkle cautioned there is no one cause of the spike in suicides but noted a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found increased anxiety and depression among Black Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. The intertwining crises in Black neighborhoods are what Preckwinkle said is the result of decades of poverty from inequitable government policies.

“Black communities have been dealing with all the issues poverty creates: violence, poor mental health and physical health, drug use and suicide,” Preckwinkle said. “It’s time to shine a light and keep conversation going around anxiety and depression in the Black community.”

The county is working on a suicide prevention plan that likely will be rolled out before the end of the year, said Dr. Diane Washington, executive director of behavioral health at Cook County Health. She said they especially need more community health workers to reach out to Cook County residents and help them navigate mental health care.

Washington also addressed the long-standing traumas plaguing Black youth, from racism to housing instability, long before the pandemic upturned their neighborhoods.

“This pain is unbearable, and this despondency and despair is huge,” Washington said. “It’s overtaken our community. And we need to get serious about managing it.”

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