Black, young and suicidal: An epidemic we must continue to bring to light
The VMA’s made a huge statement Sunday night about suicide prevention, in response to the death of Linkin Park’s lead singer Chester Bennington.
The statement was bold and powerful with past survivors participating in the moving performance, and a speech bringing up issues of mental health, discrimination, and the fact that we are all born equal but not treated equal.
Unfortunately, that inequality spreads into an intersection of Blackness and healthcare, which make our communities more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and ultimately suicide — a rising epidemic within our community.
For Black folks, there has never been a time where we could collectively say that America has been great to us.
We deal with multiple systems of oppression birthed out of the ending of slavery that have created the environment for poorer mental health, and an unwillingness to battle this taboo subject within our culture. Our culture has often conflated mental health with mental illness, with the seeking of professional help being a sign of weakness in addition to being afraid of having a label placed upon them.
Many Black Americans never seek help to deal with mental health, opting for more traditional methods with the use of a religious leader at the church to work through problems. The stigma around seeking professional help continues to prevent our community from assessing the pressures of society from childhood, with a pathology that forces many of us to accept pain and struggle as a part of our heritage.
Let’s face it, Black folk are killing themselves and the rate of suicides are only increasing across many demographics.
According to the CDC, suicide is now the third-leading cause of death for Blacks ages 15-24. Although white people have the highest suicide rates in the country, the numbers around Black boys age 5-11 have doubled over the past 20 years. Researchers using this data have concluded that part of this rise is due to Black children “likely to be exposed to violence and traumatic stress, and that black children are more likely to experience an early onset of puberty, which can increase the risk of depression and impulsive aggression.”
Among those numbers, hanging deaths among Black boys have nearly tripled, while suicide among white youth has seen declines in those same categories.
The link to poor mental health practices in the Black community has a direct correlation to suicide, especially in the case of Black men who traditionally don’t seek mental health services. Depression, a fast-growing symptom in the Black community, is one of the leading drivers of increase in suicide.
It is estimated that “about two-thirds of people who die by suicide had depression.” Subcultures within the Black community are also very vulnerable to suicide due to the intersection of multiple oppressions.
The LGBTQ community is another that is being affected by suicide and mental health issues. LGBTQ students often deal with the lack of safe spaces, bullying, and violence at a much higher rate than their hetero counterparts. It is estimated that nearly one-third (29 percent) of LGB youth had attempted suicide at least once in the prior year compared to 6 percent of heterosexual youth.
Suicide and mental health are still issues that many of us remain silent on. I like many others have personal stories of how suicide has affected my life. Suicidal thoughts have come across my mind when I was at my lowest. I’ve had several friends who have made suicide attempts, and last year lost a friend to that battle.
It’s a learned experience to not deal with mental health that we perpetuate as a part of our culture; one where we never learn to process pain over the “grit and bear it method” which we have carried over from generation to generation. The normal practice of Facebook posts becoming cries for help have become the warning sign of what is to come if we don’t begin to take action on this subject.
Our community must do better. If you see something you must begin to say something. Mental health can no longer be swept under the rug as a taboo subject among the Black community. Working on our own issues personally is not working, and in turn Black children are paying the ultimate price with their own lives.
Mental health issues and suicide were often referred to as “a white person’s issue” which is part and parcel why our community has never galvanized around fighting this issue. We traditionally had much lower rates due to stronger community ties often linked to the Black church. However, over the past 20 years as the millennial generation continues to grow through an identity of Blackness not rooted in historical traditions, cracks have been made to the foundation and community has not shifted support to a Blackness that isn’t one dimensional.
It is less about telling people to seek help, and more about creating environments for those who need it to not feel stigmatized or shamed into not seeking it. It’s about dismantling systems of oppression on the macro, and systems of internalized discrimination we have created within the Black community.
Our silence on the issue of suicide and mental health makes us complicit in the deaths of our brothers and sisters. These numbers will continue to rise if we as a community don’t push back against a poor health pathology passed down generation over generation. It’s time to break the silence, and begin to talk about it.
We can’t afford to lose another Black life.
George M. Johnson is the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com. He has written for Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.