In Our Corner: The Silence of Black Suicide

Do you ever wonder
That to win, somebody’s got to lose
I might as well get over the blues
Just like fishing in the ocean
There’ll always be someone new
You did me wrong ’cause I’ve been through stormy weather                                                      And the beat goes on.

-“And The Beat Goes On,” The Whispers, R&B Vocal Group

“Very few suicidal people want to die; they just don’t want to live the way they’re living.”

-Althea Hankins, MD, FACP, Director, Germantown Medical Center, Philadelphia, PA

“Every year, without any treatment at all, thousands stop suffering from depression.  Because it kills them.”

-Dr. Paul Greencard, 2000 Nobel Laureate in Medicine

——————————————-

My Dear Readers,

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

In the past week, the world was shocked to hear of the suicides of two celebrities: fashion designer Kate Spade and food critic/chef Anthony Bourdain.  Following the deaths of Spade and Bourdain, the Washington Post reported that suicide is being viewed not only as a mental health problem, but also as a public health problem.  Specifically:

  • Nearly 45,000 suicides occurred in the United States in 2016 –more than twice the number of homicides
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 34
  • In half the states, suicide among people ages 10 and older increased more than 30%.

Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the US Center for Disease Control observes:

“The data is disturbing.  The widespread nature of the increase, in every state but one, really suggests that this is a national problem hitting most communities.”

Professional health care organizations are frustrated by the lack of action by governmental agencies.  Nadine Kaslow, a past president of the American Psychological Association, states:

“At what point does it become a crisis?  Suicide is a public health care crisis when you look at the numbers, and they keep going up.  It’s up everywhere.  And we know that the rates are actually higher that what’s reported.”

So, what is the impact of suicide in black communities across the country?  The American Association of Suicidology reports the following:

  • African-American women are more likely than African-American men to attempt suicide.
  • Firearms are the predominant method of suicide, followed by suffocation.
  • Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for blacks of all ages and the third leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 24.
  • The number of suicides for black boys ages 5-11 have doubled in the last 20 years.
  • Hanging deaths among black boys have nearly tripled while suicide among white youth has declined in the same category.

The research shows that black males and females have similar suicidal behavior to whites including:

  • Serious thoughts of suicide
  • Making suicide plans
  • Attempting suicide and
  • Needing medical attention for attempted suicide

In essences, if a tree falls in a forest, who hears it depends on which community it has fallen in.

In white communities, two well-known individuals committed suicide quietly and alone—yet, the world erupts in shock and devastation.  There are fears that copycat suicides will follow, like the 2,000 deaths in the four months following Robin Williams’ 2014 suicide.

It is not the case in the forest of the black community.  Eight black men per day commit suicide across the U.S., and all we hear is the weeping of family members and the deafening silence from the media.

Recently in Spokane, WA, a young black man, a loving father and beloved son, legally brought a firearm, went into the bathroom of his home, and shot himself to death.

Like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, this young man was alone when he took his life.  He too leaves behind grieving family and friends.  The difference is that unlike the focus on suicide prevention following the deaths of Spade and Bourdain, the silence continues in the black community… and life goes on.

Are black people disinterested in the welfare of their loved ones? If they do care, why do they respond like this?

In past writings, I have suggested that “why” questions invite answers that circle back on themselves and as a result, they do not lead us to a full understanding of the foundation of the issue.

A more useful method of inquiry would be focusing on the “what,” instead.  Specifically,

  • What has been the view of mental health and suicide in the black community?
  • What creates distance between black and white communities when it comes to working together on the issues of mental health and suicide?

What has been the view of mental health and suicide in the black community?

Stoicism- the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.

Historically and inter-generationally, African-Americans have created specific internalized methods such as “grin and bear it” and “quietly handling one’s business” to protect themselves during times of suffering. However, such methods create hurtful roles that African-Americans are expected to live up to, such as “the strong black woman,” and expecting men to “man up,” by not expressing emotion.

These methods serve only to reinforce the perception that mental health and suicide are “white people issues”.  It creates pressure to maintain “face and image” within the community, even as they suffer in silence.  Needless to say, these methods are psychologically destructive.

What separates the black community from the white community on the issues of mental health and suicide?

 “The truth is that I can’t go anywhere.  And let’s get real: With the whites in the white coats and it’s mostly us getting sent to the loony bin, I don’t have much of a choice.”

-Anonymous

Racism. Most African-Americans believe that racism and stereotypical beliefs held about African Americans prevents the establishment of trusting relationships with white healthcare professionals and the white community.

A recent study on racial empathy gaps found that people, including medical personnel, assumed that black people feel less pain than white people. The researchers concluded that people assume that “blacks feel less pain because they faced more hardships relative to whites.”

The lack of black professionals in the mental health field exacerbates the lack of trust.  Although African-Americans are 12% of the population, in the mental healthcare nationwide, they are only:

  • 2% of the psychiatrists,
  • 2% of psychologists, and
  • 4% of social workers.

The dearth of black healthcare professionals reinforces the misbelief that mental health and suicide are “white people issues.”

What Can Be Done Regarding Mental Health in The Black Community?

“Not everything that is faced can be changed.  But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

-James Baldwin, Author

Normalize Suicidal Ideation

There are times in life when we feel hopeless, helpless and overwhelmed with emotional pain.  Suicidal thoughts can result when a person experiences too much pain without having enough resources to cope.  The emotional pain never seems to stop, and it seems impossible to resolve when all other ideas and possible solutions to alleviate it have been exhausted.

For others, suicide may be a way of punishing others, or letting them know how much pain you are in.  However, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  Given time and work, more and clearer options and alternatives can arise.

Those Thoughts Can and Will Pass

Depression, the basis of these suicidal thoughts, often feels permanent, even though the suicidal thoughts are temporary.  Depression can and does come and go.

Suicidal thoughts are a temporary crisis and are your psychological self’s attempt to stop emotional pain.

 Helping Those with Suicidal Thoughts

  • Ask the person if they are thinking about killing themselves. Ask directly, even though the question may seem awkward.
  • Let the person know that you are concerned about them and the situation they are in.
  • Find out if they have a specific plan, and if so, how far the person has gone to carry out the plan.
  • Let the person know the importance of getting help, and that treatment can really help make a difference.
  • Get the person professional help immediately. Contact a suicide prevention hotline, hospital emergency room, local crisis center or dial 911 for assistance.
  • Make an agreement with the person that they will not commit suicide.
  • Check in with the person to find out how they are doing.
  • Encourage the person to seek follow-up care.
  • Keep in mind that a quick recovery from suicidal thoughts and feelings may be the person’s attempt to deny, consciously, or unconsciously, the intensity of the depression.
  • Understand that suicidal thoughts and feelings may return.

What NOT to Do

  • Don’t assume that the situation will take care of itself.
  • Don’t leave the person alone.
  • Don’t allow yourself to be sworn to secrecy.
  • Don’t act shocked or surprised at what the person may say about their thoughts and feelings.
  • Don’t challenge, dare, or use verbal shock statements.
  • Don’t argue or debate moral issues.
  • Don’t offer alcohol or drugs to cheer up the person

REMEMBER:

You are not responsible for the actions of others.  You can encourage a friend or loved one to get professional help, but you cannot stop someone who is intent on committing suicide. 

——————————————–

Concluding Words-Dr. Kane

In my academic scholarship, forensic and clinical practices, I have found that African-Americans react and respond to 13 different types of traumas and 10 forms of racism daily. It is not surprising that suicidal thoughts arise in people who consistently withstand the intense psychological pressure from this constantly hostile external environment, and that anyone under such pressure may consider suicide to escape or relieve themselves of such intense emotional or psychological pain.

Suicidal thoughts, attempts and completion are not evidence of one’s weakness.  These are the reactions and responses to pressure that has brought the individual to the brink of termination.

We must seek to end the silence of mental health and the denial of suicide in the African-American community. In doing so, we embrace and normalize our pain so that we are no longer isolated and exposed to the pressure that our environment visits upon us.

********************************************

“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence becomes a lie.”

-Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russian Poet

“Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.

 

 Until the next time.  Remaining…In Our Corner.

 

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