Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor, 10, took her own life last week after allegedly being tormented, humiliated, and called the n-word by her classmates in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“Izzy’s parents did everything they could; they were attentive to their child and noted behavioral shifts, and they did reach out to instructors and school officials to attempt to address that,” said Eliot Sykes, Ph.d., a certified Salt Lake City psychologist.
Tichenor died just two weeks after the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice ordered the Davis School District in Salt Lake City to remedy racial discrimination accusations, including persistent racial harassment of Black and Asian-American pupils.
“The district is currently assembling an independent team to review the protocols we have in place and the allegations that Izzy was racially harassed and discriminated against,” the school district said in a statement to Atlanta Black Star.
“Every school administrator began rigorous training in reviewing, assessing, and reacting to any racial harassment accusations,” according to the district.
Tichenor’s tragedy also brings attention to an alarming trend among Black youth: rising suicide rates.
Between 2003 and 2017, 1,810 Black adolescents died by suicide between the ages of 5 and 17 years old, according to a report published in September in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Researchers discovered a strong “upward trend in suicide” among all age categories, with youths 15 to 17 years old having the biggest annual percentage change. “Black girls experienced a 6.6 percent yearly percentage rise, which was double that of Black boys.”
The same alarming increase was seen in a previous study published in May in JAMA Network Open, which monitored Black males and females aged 15 to 24 years old between 2013 and 2019. The suicide rate among black men increased from 12.2 per 100,000 in 2013 to 17.9 per 100,000 in 2019. The suicide rate among Black females increased from 2.7 per 100,000 in 2013 to 4.3 per 100,000 in 2019.
Racial prejudice, community trauma and violence, and the stigma associated with mental illness can all contribute to Black youth coping with mental illness. Because of the primarily white school district’s demographics and a lack of cultural knowledge, Sykes believes that warning indicators were likely ignored in Tichenor’s case by school staff.
“From my own research and understanding, there’s nothing that really supports these teachers and school officials in engaging in antiracist behavior, not their training, not their lived experience, especially if they were born and raised in Utah, where Black people make up 1.7-1.8 percent of the population,” Sykes said.
Sykes advises parents and caregivers of Black children to pay special attention to changes in their children’s behavior, adding that some may express themselves in obvious ways, such as becoming impatient or acting out, but more subtle forms of expression can also emerge.
Charmain Jackman, Ph.D., is a certified psychologist with 17 years of experience dealing with school-aged children in Boston, Massachusetts. Adults should learn to listen to children more intently, she argues, because youngsters are typically the first to notice warning signals of their peers suffering from mental health issues.
“One of the most important things is for other students to be educated on some of the warning signs,” Jackman explained. “We’d often receive referrals from students who would say, well, my friend just put something online and I’m really worried about them.”
Tichenor’s family did not respond to requests for interviews for this story.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, get help from a trusted friend, a mental health professional, or call 1-800-273-8255, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (TALK).