- Suicide rates among Black males ages 10 to 19 jumped 60% over the past 20 years.
- Removing the stigma surrounding suicide in the Black community is happening as more people share their stories, support, and resources.
- Many organizations offer resources specifically for people of color, including training for faith-based church leaders.
The number of Black youths who have died by suicide has increased faster in the past 20 years than any other ethnic group. In fact, for Black males ages 10 to 19, suicide rates jumped 60% during that time.
While other ethnic groups have higher overall numbers of deaths by suicide, the surge in rates is concerning for Black Americans. But many view suicide and the stigma surrounding it, as taboo topics. Not discussing the problem severely impacts the solution.
The stigma, I believe, is about shame.
“The stigma, I believe, is about shame. We don’t want to talk about it because shame says you’re bad, you’re not worthy of love,” states Anitra Rice, who lost two of her sons to suicide. “It goes to these false ideas and beliefs that we have about our value and have about our mistakes, and the people that we are,” she adds.
Despite the stigma, there is hope. Although suicide and mental health have long been taboo topics in the Black community, experts say they see people more willing to talk about mental health issues. As more people share their stories about suicide and advocate for mental health care, the Black community and society as a whole is becoming more open to discussing suicide and paths to healing.
Stigma and Solutions
Society in general, and many people in communities of color, have avoided discussions of suicide and mental health issues for years.
“[There] are some Black communities where discussions of mental health and suicide can be more challenging, or where these things may be stigmatized,” notes Paul Nestadt, MD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
While noting that stigma exists in all communities, not just those of color, Dr. Nestadt also discusses why that stigma may prevail. “[In] the Black community part of the issue may be stronger ties to traditional churches where suicide can sometimes still be viewed as a sin and where mental illness may be viewed (incorrectly) as weakness,” he adds.
For some, reaching out for help can further stigmatize them.
“Helping-seeking behavior is sometimes viewed as a weakness or admission of being ‘crazy’ in Black communities. Society has created and maintained unrealistic messages and images of resilience and superhuman psychological and emotional fortitude that many Blacks internalize and feel that they have to live up to,” explains Victor Armstrong, MSW, Chief Diversity Officer, RI International, and trainer for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Soul Shop for Black churches.
Research shows that a lack of trust of medical intervention, a lack of resources, and even trauma and racism have caused the stigma to deepen.
But steps are being taken to normalize medication, therapy, and treatment for mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. Experts say it’s important to place a high priority on communication, starting with young children. Allowing them to talk about feeling sad, lonely, isolated, or depressed in a safe space is a great start. Education and awareness of signs that someone is considering suicide, and how to help them, are important.
Paul Nestadt, MD
In countering the stigma against help seeking for suicidal thoughts, the best thing to do is encourage dialogue and model openness.
Stigma also lessens as other people are willing to share their journeys.
“In countering the stigma against help seeking for suicidal thoughts, the best thing to do is encourage dialogue and model openness. When people see respected figures in their own community asking for help and sharing success stories, stigma is eroded,” Dr. Nestadt advises.
Sharing Stories and Making a Difference
Anitra Rice has endured heartache twice. Two of her sons, Josiah and Jaden, both completed suicide. Each son was 20 years old at the time of his death. Her sons were talented, intelligent, gifted young men who endured painful change and situations that were hard to overcome. Although they expressed their love for their mother and were leading productive lives, they ultimately completed suicide.
Rice still refers to herself as a loving mother to her two sons who have died, as well as her youngest son. Yet her desire to help them couldn’t stop their pain.
“I tried as much as I possibly could to provide stability for them. There was a part of them I just, I couldn’t reach. It wasn’t until after their passing that I learned more about the depth of their pain,” Rice states.
Despite the heartache and hurt she’s experienced, Rice continues to speak out about her sons’ suicides. She believes it is a part of her mission to tell their stories, and to help other suicide survivors know they are not alone. She also says it’s important to help the Black community normalize critical mental health discussions, including working to overcome suicidal thoughts.
“How do we help men … who have a very hard time dealing with their emotional trauma? How do we in the Black community provide a safe space a safe place for them to heal, where they don’t feel emasculated?” Rice asks. “This false bravado isn’t really strength, it’s insecurity. It’s this little boy trying so hard to keep up this façade but inside he’s dying.”
Rice says she hopes that sharing her family’s story will help someone else.
“We’re afraid already that people are looking at us and we’re trying so hard not to let our scars show, let our frailties show. But [we should] look at our pain through a lens of compassion,” Rice says.
Education and awareness are important components of destigmatizing getting help for suicidal ideations, or healing after a loved one’s death by suicide:
- The Black Swan Diaries provides phone numbers to several hotlines, including National Suicide Prevention Hotline and Mental Health Crisis Hotline. The website also offers links to download several self-help guides.
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center has valuable articles and information on addressing death by suicide among Black Americans.
- Black Girls Smile lists a number of organizations that offer mental health help, with some focusing on communities of color.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Soul Shop gives educational training to equip leaders in Black churches and guide them in talking to their communities about mental health and preventing suicide.
- Organizations like Therapy for Black Girls and Therapy for Black Men specialize in providing therapy options for their communities.
People of all races and ethnicities need to be willing to speak openly and honestly about mental health struggles and suicide. As more people speak out about their experiences and advocate to destigmatize mental health care, solutions and healing can take place.
What This Means For You
If someone you care about seems despondent, depressed, or has suicidal ideations, seek help. Calling a hotline, reaching out to authorities, or helping that person get counseling are all ways to help remove the stigma surrounding suicide. Help the person you love get the help that they need.
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