Florida high school football star's death highlights rising suicide rates among black youth

Bryce Gowdy took his life days before he was to enroll at Georgia Tech on a football scholarship. Suicide rates are soaring among black youth.

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By Minyvonne Burke

A 17-year-old Florida high school football star died by suicide on Monday, days before he was to enroll at Georgia Tech on an athletic scholarship.

The death of Bryce Gowdy rocked his family and the local sports world. It also highlighted the rising suicide rates among black youth and the difficulties they often face in getting help.

Bryce died on Dec. 30 shortly after 4 a.m. in Deerfield Beach, about 17 miles north of Fort Lauderdale. The medical examiner’s office ruled the death a suicide.

In addition to his talents at football, his uncle, Thomas Gowdy, said Bryce had planned on studying engineering. He called his nephew a “borderline genius.”

Bryce's uncle said his nephew had been under a lot of pressure and taking care of his mother and younger siblings. His mother, Shibbon Winelle, said in a since-deleted Facebook Live video that Bryce had been struggling and became paranoid in the days before he died.

The family had fallen upon financial hardship and was dealing with homelessness.

Bryce Gowdy wearing a cap announcing his intention to play football at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.via NBC Miami

Homeless youth are at a greater risk of emotional distress and suicide attempts than their peers, said a 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But suicide rates are up for all youth. From 2007 to 2017, the suicide rate for adolescents and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24 rose 56 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among black youth in particular, the rates of those taking their own lives are soaring.

'Urgent call to action'

In a study last year, the Journal of Community Health found that suicide rates are disproportionately higher among black adolescents. From 2001 to 2017, the rate for black teen boys rose 60 percent, according to the study. Among black teen girls, rates nearly tripled, rising by an astounding 182 percent.

The Congressional Black Caucus in a report last month, "Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America," found that African American adolescents are less likely than any other racial or ethnic group to receive proper mental health care.

"An urgent call to action for all Americans" is needed, said the report, done by a task force for the caucus.

Alfiee Breland-Noble, a member of the task force and a mental health expert, said the stigma around mental illness is one problem facing black youth. Another is that schools and other institutions often classify black children as having behavior disorders rather than suffering from emotional problems.

“For black children, when they do have mental health issues, they’re not treated for depression, anxiety, or even trauma. They’re treated for oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder,” Breland-Noble told NBC News.

Being poor makes it even harder to get the mental health care needed, said Breland-Noble, who launched a research nonprofit, The AAKOMA Project.

“If you’re in poverty you have so many competing demands that it’s hard to get to a place where you can sit down and say, ‘Ok, I know I need help, where am I going?’" she explained.

Another barrier could be cultural.

T-Kea Blackman, a suicide survivor, told NBC News she began struggling with suicidal thoughts when she was 12 and in the midst of her depression was told to “speak in tongues for 20 minutes” to get better.

“A lot of times in the black community we think we can just pray everything away," she said. "We tend to look at mental health as a sign of weakness."

Blackman is now 29 and has started a mental health media and communications company, Fireflies Unite.

'Changing the narrative'

Blackman believes the narrative about mental health needs to change.

“Just like you go to your primary care physician for your annual checkup, how about having a mental wellness check-in? I think it’s changing the narrative in the black community that therapy means 'I’m crazy' or 'I have an issue.' Therapy can also mean, 'I’m being proactive in making sure that I’m OK,'” she said.

Jeffrey Gardere, a psychologist and course director at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harlem, New York, said educating children and teens in schools can help "sensitize them earlier on to the importance of mental health.”

Teaching youth about the values of developing a healthy lifestyle is also crucial, Gardere said, as well as raising awareness about the resources that are available — such as Crisis Text Line and Mental Health First Aid, which offers classes on how to recognize mental illness and substance use disorders.

Just talking about mental health helps, said Jennifer Snow, director of public policy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“The more people are talking about it, the more it’s normalized as just another health condition that you need to deal with,” she said. “We know treatment works. People can live healthy, fulfilling lives, but when they are not able to access treatment disaster can happen.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.