Sean Joe, PhD, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor in Social Development, came to Washington University in St. Louis’ Brown School this fall from the University of Michigan. His research focuses on black adolescents’ mental health; the role of religion in black suicidal behavior; and the development of father-focused, family-based interventions to prevent black adolescent males from engaging in multiple forms of self-destructive behaviors.
A fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine, Joe received the Early Career Achievement Award from the Society for Social Work and Research in 2008. The following year, he received the Edwin S. Shneidman Award from the American Association of Suicidology for outstanding contributions in research to the field of suicide studies. He has published in the areas of suicide, violence and firearm-related violence.
You are a national expert and leading authority on suicide among black Americans, specifically black adolescent males. How did you get interested in this field of research?
I like to say that most of my work begins and ends with trying to understand factors that impact the positive development of black youth as they transition from adolescence to young adulthood.
In the beginning of my career, I focused on attrition among college students. But in my dissertation work at the University of Illinois, I quickly moved away from that to look at homicide and violence. As I was beginning that work, my adviser was researching suicide. There is literature that connects homicide to suicide conceptually, suggesting an inverse relationship. I became very curious about that relationship, and began to explore with him what we knew about black adolescent suicidal behavior.
I still worked on homicide issues, but I got into working more on suicide because there was a great demand for information. There wasn’t much out there on the subject. It’s an important issue that I felt was understudied. I thought that as a society we needed to do more, so I dedicated my life to just that.
How big of a problem is suicide among black youth?
More than 30,000 people commit suicide each year in the United States. So it is a big issue. But it’s a low frequency behavior when you consider it in relation to other health risk behavior fatalities, such as smoking or alcohol abuse.
More than 80 percent of suicides among black Americans are committed by males. A majority of those male suicides are people under the age of 35. Among blacks Americans, the age group most at risk is 21-24.
My earlier studies noted a marked increase in suicide among black male teens, ages 15-19. That age group accounted for the closing gap between young white and black suicide rates at the time. White suicide rates have always been higher, but that gap was shrinking. I wanted to understand what was causing the gap to close, due to the rise in suicide among black teens.
What role does religion play in suicide, especially for black Americans?
Religion and suicide have long been connected in the academic literature. Religion has traditionally been a social connection within the society. The more strained that connection is, the higher the probability that people might engage in suicidal behaviors.
I was very interested in how religion impacts attitudes toward health behavior. One of the thoughts is that religions always confer a stigma or negative attitude toward suicide. I was interested to see if that had changed for black Americans, particularly black males, where they might have a more accepting attitude toward suicide.
There are a few early studies that show blacks to have a more orthodox religious view toward suicide than whites. If younger blacks are more disconnected from the black church and more integrated into the broader American society, maybe the attitudes are more similar to young white youth, who have higher suicide rates.
Why are father-focused and family-based suicide interventions so important?
I was trained as a family-based intervention researcher. I did a lot of work with parent-child HIV interventions for black children and adolescents during my post-doctoral years, working to educate parents. The parents that we targeted at that time tended to be mothers. I thought there was a role for black fathers to play. I wanted to work on engaging fathers, whether biological or social. Research shows that even if black fathers are non-residential and don’t live with the young man, they tend to be more involved than white fathers who are non-residential. I wanted to build on that strength.
What are you working on now?
Part of the reason I came to the Brown School is that it has a rich tradition of doing very rigorous work and being community-based and engaged. I knew from my conversations with (Brown School) Dean (Edward F.) Lawlor, and others here, that the university had a commitment to seeing broader societal issues addressed and that the university has a potentially substantial role to play in doing that.
I am looking to work with colleagues from across the university and community leaders to tackle inequalities in adolescent development in the St. Louis region. It’s an idea I’m hoping to craft with my colleagues, and I think there’s enough literature to suggest that when you have disparities in development among youth, the entire region starts to suffer from that.
I’m also working to understand better how black males cope. It’s no surprise that many black males have had a difficult developmental experience within the American context. That’s not new. But I do think that over the last 30 years or so, things are fundamentally changing in how they cope and experience America, and I wanted to know why.
It seems that many of the issues raised by what has happened in Ferguson this summer and fall dovetail with your research interests. How do you plan to engage there?
In many ways, I think that Ferguson pushes my agenda forward much sooner than I thought the region would be ready to engage in. In many ways, the tragic death of Michael Brown might result in the leadership will and opportunity for the creation of a collective impact strategy to address chronic inequalities in positive adolescent developmental experience.
Ferguson is really a reflection of the inequalities in adolescent development and regional inequalities, and the region can do something about that. It has enough intellect and resources to make a difference, if we take the approach that what happens to one, happens to all.
I’m hoping to spend the next few weeks and months listening and meeting community leaders. In that way, I’m hoping to learn what their particular challenges are, but more importantly to make myself and my networks and colleagues available so we can lend our expertise to strategic planning and actions.
Coming here and seeing the Ferguson situation firsthand has reiterated the need for high-quality education for all our citizens. Studies suggest that when a region has high levels of equal education, the entire region does better economically and socially. How do we do that? I’m hoping to work with colleagues here to find some solutions.