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Preckwinkle: Dramatic rise in suicides among Cook County's Black population

Sunday, August 09, 2020
Daily Herald
by Manhu Krishnamurthy

Cook County is seeing a dramatic increase in suicides among Black residents.

"There have been more suicides so far this year in the Black community than in all of 2019," Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said. "Most notably, we are seeing an increase in youth suicide. The youngest victim this year was just 9 years old."

The African American community has borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid overdose deaths and rising homicide rates, she added.

The Cook County medical examiner's office reports 2020 is on pace to be the worst year for suicides in the Black community in a decade.

So far, there have been 58 suicide deaths among Blacks compared to 56 in all of 2019. Nearly 80% of suicides were men, 40% were under 30, three were under 18, and the youngest was the 9-year-old boy who died July 5.

Mental health support

Anxiety and depression are high among Blacks, who disproportionately have been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and also suffer health disparities, high rates of unemployment and poverty, said Dr. Diane Washington, Cook County Health director of behavioral health.

"We need to have a conversation about mental health and suicide," said Washington, a psychiatrist for more than 28 years.

"There's a lot of stigma in our own community about mental health. ... The shame that goes with mental health is huge in our community. This pain is unbearable, and this despondency and this despair is huge. It has overtaken our community."

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

Cops building bonds

Building relationships, constant interactions and conversations with students help deter threats to school safety, says Streamwood police officer Courtney Stoiber, a school resource officer at Tefft Middle School in Streamwood.

Stoiber is among a cadre of resource officers stationed at Elgin Area School District U-46 middle and high schools. She is trained in crisis intervention.

"It's highly focused on de-escalation and identifying persons in crisis ... with mental or physical disabilities, on the autism spectrum, with mental illnesses or other emotional needs," she said. "It's about verbally counseling them through that crisis and referring them to staff or resources to better address their needs."

Minority student arrests

At U-46, student arrests for behavioral infractions are down from 343 in the 2013-14 school year to 36 in 2019-20. The majority of arrests during that period involved Black and Hispanic students.

Latinos constitute nearly 55% of the district's 38,395 students, followed by whites 26%, Asians 8%, Blacks 6% and two or more races 3%, data show.

Rich Bosh, a Bartlett police detective who has served 14 years as a resource officer for Bartlett High, was part of an oversight committee reviewing district policies and procedures for identifying students as threats. He started a safety task force at the school that gives students a say in school culture.

"Kids really took ownership of the school," Bosh said. "That was a really good thing that we hope to build on with other schools."

Mentoring students

John Heiderscheidt, U-46 director of school safety and culture, said officials are considering expanding student mentoring through resource officers.

A group of parents is pushing student-led violence prevention/safety programs to reduce bullying and build relationships, such as the "See something, say something" initiative started after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

"Our officers are helping to build those programs at a grass-roots level," Heiderscheidt said. "Students are leading the effort to grow that."

The district will be asking resource officers to provide A.L.I.C.E. (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) active shooter response training for school employees.

The Elgin Police Department also trains its officers in the Handle with Care program.

"It's an excellent way to be a trauma-informed care community," Heiderscheidt said.

Youth services

The Youth and Family Center of McHenry County is offering a socially distanced summer park program, including music, self-defense training, martial arts, sports and a free lunch, for at-risk students with food insecurity.

"Any normal year, we would have had anywhere from 45 to 55 kids," Executive Director Guadalupe Ortiz said. "We are now having 10 kids at a time. We are really trying to focus on our after-school program to support the coming needs for remote learning for a lot of our kids."

The McHenry-based agency serves roughly 500 clients, including youths and adults, through prevention programs, bicultural service navigation and social-emotional supports. They are mostly low-income, minority and uninsured families, many of whom have suffered job loss due to the pandemic.

Growing food insecurity

Officials at the Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva are anticipating an uptick in need for food support as pandemic unemployment benefits run out and the state's moratoriums on evictions and utility cutoffs expire by month end.

"In June, we distributed 9.5 million meals' worth of food in all of our counties," spokeswoman Liz Gartman said. "Typically, it's like in the 5 million range. It is pretty uncharted for us."In 2018-19, the agency distributed more than 69 million meals, mostly in DuPage and Kane counties. That grew to about 80.3 million meals in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

"We distributed 30 million of those meals during COVID-19 from March to June," said Gartman, adding that people served include low-income, minorities and a lot of newly poor families.

• Share stories, news and happenings from the suburban mosaic with Madhu Krishnamurthy at mkrishnamurthy@dailyherald.com.



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