A Healthier Wisconsin

Assessing Suicide Risk and Preventing Suicide among Black Students in Milwaukee

Reducing suicidal behavior among Black youth in Milwaukee

Full Project Name:Assessing Suicide Risk and Preventing Suicide among Black Students in MilwaukeePrimary Community Organization:Milwaukee Public SchoolsPrimary Academic Partner:Michelle Pickett, MD, PediatricsAward Amount:$200,000
Award Date
Project Duration:18 months

Project Description Narrative:

Suicide prevention is a health priority in the State of Wisconsin. In 2020, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, along with other state-level suicide prevention agencies, issued the Suicide in Wisconsin: Impact and Response report. This report highlighted higher rates of emergency department visits for self-inflicted injury among Black Wisconsinites, specifically Black youth. Although not every instance of self-inflicted injury involves suicidality, this behavior indicates distress in an individual, and individuals dealing with mental health issues are at increased risk for suicide.

Suggested strategies for suicide prevention include expanding screening, assessment, and suicide-specific treatments for those at risk. This project aims to identify students, particularly Black youth, at risk for suicide and improve access to community-based care.

The Milwaukee Public School (MPS) district is the largest district in Wisconsin, serving over 72,000 students, 50.8% Black and 27.5% Hispanic (as of 2022). During the 2019-2020 school year, 2,050 suicide risk assessments were completed in MPS for 1,354 individual students, with an average of 273 risk assessments per month across the district.

This indicates that less than <2% of the total district student population was identified as being at risk for suicide. In contrast, data collected from the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey in MPS indicates that 16.5% of high school students and 24.1% of middle school students have considered suicide in the last year, with 10.6% and 11.7%, respectively, engaging in a suicide attempt. During the school shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 525 students (less than 1% of the total district student population) were identified as at risk, likely due to barriers to accessing school-level support.

Data from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicates that help-seeking behaviors for MPS students are decreasing overall, with only 20% of students indicating they "most of the time" or "always" received help when feeling sad, anxious, angry, or hopeless compared to 28.1% of students in 2017. Finally, with the continued experiences of racial and social injustice in our country, Black and Hispanic youth are at increased risk for suicide. There is a gap in which students at risk for suicide are identified.

No system-wide universal suicide risk screening program exists within MPS. By engaging local Black and Brown youth and parents through focus groups, this project aims to develop a marketing campaign to reduce stigma around mental health issues in the Black and Brown community while promoting help-seeking behaviors. Researchers will use input from these groups and other key community stakeholders to implement culturally relevant suicide risk screening practices using a validated screening tool in selected Milwaukee Public Schools and link youth at risk for suicide and their parents to appropriate, culturally competent, community-based providers.

Community partners: City of Milwaukee Office of Violence Prevention, Milwaukee Public Schools

Project Updates:

  • Piloted universal screening for suicide risk at a Milwaukee Public Schools high school
  • Screened 104 students using the universal screening model
  • Developed and deployed an anti-stigma messaging campaign through print and social media
  • Conducted surveys with parents of students who screened positive

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8701 W Watertown Plank Road,
Milwaukee, WI 53226-0509
(414) 955-4350