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With family and community involvement, and JEDI-influenced culture, schools can help prevent suicide among Black youth

Researchers, left to right, Constance Lindsay, Marisa Marraccini, and Dana Griffin.

In recent decades, the rate of suicide among Black boys, children and adolescents, has shown an alarming increase. However, most cultural discourse on suicide prevention is framed around non-Latinx White (NLW) culture, rendering suicidality in Black youth nearly “invisible.” (Bath and Njoroge, 2021) 

Three UNC School of Education professors from across disciplines joined together to better understand why the increase is happening, to bring necessary and overdue visibility to this line of scholarly inquiry, and, most importantly, to protect this most vulnerable group of young people.  

Marisa Marraccini, Constance Lindsay, and Dana Griffin, together with a colleague from Texas A&M University and two UNC-Chapel Hill graduate students, published “A Trauma- and Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI)-Informed Approach to Suicide Prevention in School: Black Boys’ Lives Matter” in School Psychology Review as a call to action for addressing suicide prevention in Black boys.

That publication, a first step in their collaboration, outlined action steps for school psychologists, calling for a trauma-informed approach to better support Black students. They aren’t stopping there.   

Together, they are examining potential missed opportunities for mental health care and areas of Black youths’ school experiences that may lead to increased risk of suicide. Then, they plan to develop evidence-based guidance that will enable schools professionals to take a more active role in preventing suicide among Black boys.  

Providing clarity 

Lindsay, Griffin, and Marraccini each came to this project with motivation for improving systems of care for Black students, who have historically been overlooked in each of their research areas. 

Lindsay, Ph.D., who focuses on policies and practices to close racial achievement gaps in education, has found that having an educator of color has the most salient effects for persistently low-income Black boys. Her research found that having a Black teacher for one year in elementary school raised long-run educational attainment for Black male students, especially for those from low-income households.  

For the most disadvantaged Black males, Lindsay and a team estimated that exposure to a Black teacher in elementary school reduced high school dropout rates by 39% and raised college-going aspirations. 

“I’m always interested in thinking what will make both school and their lives better because we have many years of longitudinal data available here in North Carolina and can answer many interesting questions about students’ lives,” she said. 

As a school counselor, researcher, and faculty member who prepares the next generation of effective school counselors, Griffin, Ph.D., said that schools need better approaches when it comes to mental health, especially for marginalized youth. 

“School counselors have the capacity and position to address the mental well-being of students,” Griffin said. “For many students, school counselors are the first and sole provider of mental health support. However, in many schools, school counselors are not seen as mental health workers, and as such, are often overlooked as a mental health resource in schools.” 

Griffin, who grew up in rural Virginia, said she knows well the need rural communities have for better and increased mental health services, especially. Griffin currently leads the U.S. Department of Education-funded Helping Heels program, a five-year project that is placing school counselors-in-training in rural high-needs elementary and middle schools to help close gaps in mental health care access. 

Marraccini, Ph.D., conducts research that aims to prevent adolescent suicide and works to promote child and adolescent mental health in the context of their daily lives, specifically school settings. 

She knew from earlier research that school connectedness — when students feel connected to their school community and that adults and peers in school care about their learning and about them as individuals — can have a protective effect against suicide. 

 For their collective work, Marraccini said the team began by reviewing literature across different ethnic, racial, sexual, and gender identity groups, and looked at school connectedness specifically.  

However, in that review, they began to see that a positive relationship with an adult as a protective effect against suicide was relatively unexplored for Black youth. A more comprehensive approach might be required.  

“When we really begin to disaggregate the data, it becomes less and less clear for Black youth specifically,” she said. “Feeling connected to school is important, but we need to learn more about how school connectedness fits within the broader context for Black youth, including system-level risks such as systemic racism.” 

The three also wrote their conceptual paper to begin to create clarity. What did existing research show? What did it not show? 

They examined more deeply how current school practices — staff exhibiting implicit and explicit bias, a culture that encourages nebulous “grit” in the face of systemic racism — intersect with psychological risk factors to prevent or exacerbate suicide risk in Black boys. Because of its complexity, this issue benefits from different research perspectives and methods, Lindsay said.  

“We have several colleagues interested in improving schools for students,” she said. “We’re figuring out the best data and the best methods to get a good answer for this problem.” 

Lindsay pointed out that a lot of research shows the positive impact of Black youth having a Black teacher, but less about understanding why it does.  

“This type of collaboration can uncover what’s behind these relationships,” she said. 

An upstream approach to a long-standing problem 

American schools exist inside American culture and cannot consider themselves exempt from historical oppressions forced upon Black people. American schools legally excluded Black students until 1954, and from that, systemic inequities remain. 

The three researchers believe one current threat to Black students may be the persistently high rate of disproportionality regarding discipline and behaviors for Black youth, a policy area Lindsay’s work has focused on and worked to address. In a recently published article, Lindsay and a colleague found that Black teachers are less likely to refer Black students for discretionary education placements.  In previous work, they found the same for harsh exclusionary discipline practices. Compared to NLW youth, Black students are more than two and a half times as likely to be disciplined in school.  

Professionals interpreting behaviors as “acting out” or as so-called “problem behaviors” may be missing cries for help that go unheard. 

In her work and research to prevent suicide, Marraccini wants schools to start further upstream, well before school staff members assess a single child’s behavior. How can schools put measures in place to prevent suicide, to address risk before it occurs?  

“There are a lot of pieces coming together that made me curious about whether disproportionate disciplinary referrals are a specifically suicide-related risk,” she said. “I wondered whether schools are missing opportunities to provide mental health care when they see trauma-related symptoms. Are they misinterpreting those symptoms as behavioral problems?”  

For Griffin, school counselors are the school-based professionals who can provide the upstream care needed in these situations. But when there are huge caseloads and/or staffing shortages, Griffin said school counselors are often not able to do the work they are trained and there to do.  

“What we are seeing now with staffing shortages is that counselors are being pulled into classrooms to be substitute teachers, which means that they’re not addressing the mental health needs of the students in the schools” Griffin said.  

And school counselors can only do so much. Counselor education training programs need to  teach school counselors best practices for working with and alongside families and communities to address mental health of their youth, along with a need to understand the stigma related to mental health that can exist in the Black community.  For example, Griffin said, sometimes there are beliefs around mental health and well-being that aren’t always positive. “Sometimes the overly simplistic reaction is that a student, parent, or caregiver should turn to faith, to pray,” she said. “That solution doesn’t work for everyone.” 

Five protective factors associated with lower suicide risk in Black youth 

  • Strong family relationships, closeness, and support 
  • Religious and spirituality 
  • Community and social support 
  • Personal factors (e.g. academics, emotional well-being) and positive racial identity 
  • Environmental factors (e.g. housing, income, employment) 

Better serving the most vulnerable students’ mental health care needs 

Working closely with families and communities is one of the JEDI-informed frameworks that the authors recommend. 

JEDI stands for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. A trauma- and JEDI-informed approach to preventing, identifying, assessing, and intervening against suicide in Black boys is holistic and considers “the historical and ongoing dehumanization of Black boys to help facilitate a change in the contemporary narrative about Black lives,” Marraccini, Lindsay, and Griffin write. “Instead of taking a deficit-oriented approach that places blame on Black boys, a trauma-informed approach fosters compassion and empathy, allowing individuals to see the impact of trauma that may have previously been invisible to them.”  

This framework also includes “recognition and nurturing of Black cultural strengths and resilience,” which “aims to enhance protective factors against suicide, eradicate aggressive disciplinary referrals, and lay the groundwork for implementing culturally grounded, school-based suicide prevention efforts focused on supporting Black boys,” they write. 

The collaborative solution requires collaboration among researchers with different areas of expertise, practitioners, and community members. Prevention experts must work with school counselors because school counselors know their environment the best. And that partnership must find its way to changing policy. The solution is not “yes or no,” it’s “yes and,” Griffin said.  

“What are some things that students need in school that we can start to build?” Griffin continued. “Having a diverse teacher workforce is a piece of it; having support and resources in the school; having a welcoming school environment. There are a lot of different ways that we could intervene. Bringing all of our different lenses to the table allows us to do that.” 

Each of the researchers said they benefited from engaging with the other two on this project. 

“This has been one of the best research teams I’ve been a part of,” Griffin said. “We acknowledge the expertise we all bring to the table.  “We talk, we listen to each other and take ideas and then proceed. These are the type of people that I love to work with. They’re passionate about it and are also open to suggestions and hearing other perspectives. And I think that makes the work we are doing even stronger – a true interdisciplinary approach to suicide prevention in Black youth.” 

The need for trauma- and JEDI-informed practices to support Black youth 

  • A recent meta-analysis indicates that, compared with non-Latinx White (NLW) youth, Black students are more than two and a half times as likely to be disciplined in school. 
  • More than 75% of students of color in need of mental health services do not receive treatment, especially among urban and Black students. 
  • If students are assessed for mental health concerns, they are more likely to be diagnosed with conduct, behavioral, or learning disorders than NLW youth, and less likely to receive treatment for internalizing symptoms. 
  • These diagnoses are often associated with symptoms seen by educators as “problem behaviors,” leading to punitive practices that reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline.

Creating needed conversations 

Marraccini, Lindsay, and Griffin all agree that more research is needed. This first paper focused on Black boys, but Black girls also endure disproportionate discipline in schools and face higher suicide risk than NLW girls. 

“Statistical disparities are usually so outsized for Black boys that it draws attention, but that doesn’t mean that things are great for Black girls,” Lindsay said. “That’s one of the reasons why I’m excited about this project and why it’s so important. There’s a lot of nuance. There is an overall disparity, there’s so much that is behind it, that’s driving it. And I think we’ll have the opportunity to dig deep.”

Marraccini said she hopes that the paper’s inclusion in School Psychology Review will lead to more awareness among other fields. 

“A big hope was that we could outline the historical and the sociopolitical context of what has happened and continues to happen in our country, so as we’re trying to work with families, teachers, and administrators in the context of seeing behaviors that can be considered, ‘problem behaviors,’ we pause and think about all the other co-occurring issues, including trauma,” she said.  

 “The big takeaway is that we should be looking at and assessing behaviors through a lens that is trauma-informed — not only because this is what’s right to do for a child in any given moment, but because it may also be an important piece of the puzzle toward suicide prevention in the long-run.” 


Marraccini ME, Lindsay CA, Griffin D, Greene MJ, Simmons KT, Ingram KM. A Trauma- and Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI)-Informed Approach to Suicide Prevention in School: Black Boys’ Lives Matter. School Psychology Review. 2023;52(3):292-315. doi: 10.1080/2372966x.2021.2010502. 

Bath E, & Njoroge WF (2020). Coloring Outside the Lines: Making Black and Brown Lives Matter in the Prevention of Youth Suicide. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 60 (1), 17–21. 


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By Claire Cusick