Dr. Alfiee on cultural warning signs and suicide prevention

The psychologist is the founder of a nonprofit that focuses on the mental health needs of young people of color.

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September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and theGrio chatted with psychologist, scientist, author and founder of The AAKOMA Project, Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble.

The AAKOMA Project is a mental health nonprofit focused on the needs of young people of color.

AAKOMA’s State of Mental Health for Youth of Color 2022 survey revealed that Black youth are significantly more likely to make a suicide attempt compared with Latino/e, Asian and Native American youth. Females are more likely to report suicidal ideation, according to the survey of nearly 3,000 people of color ages 13 to 25.

During the interview, Dr. Alfiee shared culturally relevant signs to pay attention to when someone might be considering suicide, such as: being involved in violence, having unrestricted access to firearms, a change in eating and sleeping behaviors, social isolation, erratic behaviors and uncharacteristic behaviors.

“They might express feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and despair,” says Dr. Alfiee. “And they may be experiencing and reporting to you significant thoughts about death and dying, even if those thoughts of death and dying are not necessarily internalized. In other words, they may be talking about death and dying, but not necessarily their own death.”

Feelings of guilt and somatic symptoms are additional warning signs.

“When we think about somatic symptoms, what we’re talking about is feelings of physical pain,” explains Dr. Alfiee.  “So in many communities of color, people will describe pain, physical pain that you can’t find any medical explanation for.”

Dr. Afiee continues, “In addition, the traditional literature talks about feelings of guilt that may plague a young person or anyone who’s contemplating dying by suicide. The culturally relevant aspect of this is that guilt is not necessarily the way that it’s going to be expressed in many communities of color and in particular in the Black community. What you may hear instead of guilt is a person feeling like their family might be better off without them or that they may be a drain on their family.”

A myth that the psychiatrist debunked is that there are no interventions designed to help reduce suicide. In fact, there are different approaches.

“Something that we typically in the field call ‘practice-based evidence’ where there are community-based organizations, there are community advocates, there are people with lived experience. And there are people who have lost loved ones to suicide who are actively working, creating interventions, creating approaches to help us reduce the difficult and awful experience of losing someone to suicide.”

The AAKOMA Project has “AAKOMA Flow,” which is designed to help increase and improve communication between parents, caregivers and young people, in part to help reduce suicide by helping people identify signs and symptoms and helping them find a way to communicate when they see those signs and symptoms present in their young person.

If someone you care for might be struggling with a mental illness or struggling with thoughts of suicide and you want to help, check out the tips below from Dr. Alfiee.

  1. “Be willing to gently and in a culturally appropriate way ask the question/ What do I mean by that? I mean, to be able to go to a person you already have a good relationship with and to open up a line of communication by saying something like, ‘You don’t seem like yourself. If you ever want to talk, I’m here.’ And then name the things that you’re seeing that make the person seem like they’re not themselves right now. And the idea behind this is you’re creating a space for a person to know that you are a safe landing and a safe haven for them.”
  2. “Listen with intent. Focus on the person you’re talking to. Don’t interrupt. Allow them to say everything that they need to say and don’t try to fix it for them. Sometimes, people just need us to listen.”
  3. “After you listen with intent, say to the person that you’re willing to help them and ask them how can you help them.”

Check out the full interview above.

To learn more about The AAKOMA Project, click here.

Suicide and Crisis Hotline: 988

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