This week is National Suicide Prevention Week. We at the TBINAA are hoping to draw attention to suicide, by publishing content that reduces the stigma around the topic and supports people who struggle with suicide ideation and/or have attempted suicide.
Kalief Browder. Karyn Washington. Lee Thompson Young. Don Cornelius. Freddie E. Shakir Stewart. Phyllis Hyman. Donny Hathaway. All African Americans who have committed suicide.
Here’s something that many African Americans don’t want to acknowledge: We suffer from mental illness, many of us have suicidal ideation, and some of us attempt and commit suicide. Not only do we have to deal with the everyday difficulties and traumas that happen in life, but we also have the extra-added burden of systemic racism. And black women have to deal with sexism as well.
Here are some statistics on African Americans and suicide:
- 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 the 16th leading cause of death for blacks of all ages and the third leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 24.
- Blacks men and women have similar rates of suicidal behavior to whites, including serious thoughts of suicide, making suicide plans, attempting suicide, and needing medical attention for attempted suicide.
African-American LGBTQ youth also have high suicide rates. Other factors that lead to suicidal ideation are sexual abuse (which raises the risk of a suicide attempt two to four times) and rape (a full 33% of rape victims think about suicide and are thirteen times more likely to commit suicide).
According to the CDC, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Yet, as a culture, we have very few resources for those in need of mental health care. And seeking help for mental health issues is still highly stigmatized. In fact, mental health is a bit of misnomer. Mental illness is a physical illness.
I have complex PTSD. I was terrorized as a child by family members, and this abuse continued into much of my adult life. Trauma physically changes the brain and how the hemispheres communicate with each other. The increased response of my amygdala — as well as the high cortisol levels my body produced as it remained in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze — affected my cognitive development and serotonin levels. The majority of our 40,000,000 brain cells are influenced by serotonin. Studies show that people who have committed suicide not only have lower levels of serotonin but also fewer serotonin receptors for the hormone.
Much attention is given to celebrity suicides such as that of Robin Williams. I don’t pay too much attention to coverage of celebrities, but one thing struck me about the tributes to Williams after his death: people offered accolade after accolade about how much he had given. As someone who has struggled with suicidal ideation, the focus on what he had given infuriated me.
It’s normal when someone passes to hold onto remembrances of the person. It’s part of the grieving process. And when thinking about loss, it’s natural to think of how that loss affects the living — hence, the focus on what the individual gave. However, I felt as though Williams’ unmet needs were again being neglected and overlooked in his death.
More Radical Reads: Learning to Live with Wanting to Die
There is value in giving. However, equal value needs to be placed on reciprocity. Obviously, I didn’t know Williams, but I know and understand the level of pain that makes you just want to check out. I’d imagine the sweet relief as I took my last breath. In my most desperate times, I’d dream about the sheer and utter release of being free from the physical and emotional pain and the desperate, desperate loneliness. I’d dream about the freedom of finally not having to figure it all out.
They mainly asked why someone who seemed to have everything would take his own life. Well, clearly, everything isn’t really everything. People who are suicidal have given until it hurts.They are beyond tapped out and, for many, the taking of their own lives seems like the only respite – the only way they can get some rest and a break from the pain. In a world in which people embrace false positivity — in which everyday conversations begin with “How are you?” and the automatic response is, “I’m fine” — there is little reprieve. We are told to look at the bright side. We are told that things aren’t as bad as they seem. But sometimes things are very difficult. In the United States, over 1,000,000 people a year become suicide survivors, and up to 38,000 do not survive the attempt.
For many African Americans with suicidal ideation, the burden of dealing with racist projections makes the living of life even harder. Several recent studies have pointed out that racism keeps white people from acknowledging black pain. Because we live in a white supremacist society, it’s unfortunately natural that African Americans have internalized this lack of empathy for our own suffering. Myths of the “strong” black woman still abound. Black boys and men who cry when in pain are told to “man up,” as if expressing emotion were something to be gendered. In her book Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, Terrie M. Williams discusses how the stoicism African Americans are taught only leads to denial, isolation, and unspoken depression. Essentially, our inability to speak our pain is killing us. This includes buying into the lie that we are the problem.
The church has often been described as the heart of the black community. During slavery and Jim Crow, it was the only place of respite. It was the place where we organized everything from the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement. It was the place where we were free from the White Gaze. It was the place where we could express our pain — shout and sing it away. But now, with the flourishing of the prosperity gospel, even this short cathartic respite that used to happen on Sunday mornings is abating.
Of course, one cannot simply pray the pain away. Professional, culturally competent, non-racist, mental health support is essential.
If there is an African American in your life who suffers from depression or suicidal ideation, or who has had traumatic experiences that make them more vulnerable to such thoughts, and they say, “I’m fine,” take a moment to hear whether that is really true. It’s very hard for suicidal people to ask for the help they need because, deep down to the core of their being, they believe that no help will ever, ever come. They live in a world with absolutely no hope. Don’t be afraid to dig a little deeper into that answer. Sometimes, having someone simply acknowledge their existence is the one thing that might keep a suicidal person from going over the edge. Even the smallest act of kindness, a promise kept, or an acknowledgement made, might save a life. If you know someone who gives until it hurts, try to give back a little or encourage them to say no.
For those who deal with or have dealt with suicidal ideation, your pain is real. It’s not that you don’t want to live; it’s just that you have never experienced a better way of living. Acknowledging this pain can be terrifying. It may feel as though, if you start crying, the tears will never end. Please know that there are people out there who can help, and they may or may not be family or friends. They may be a therapist, counselor, social worker, or a stranger with a kind word.
Find whoever is willing to help you discover that balance between darkness and light. A sign of strength is asking for what you need. There is no weakness in that. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Baby Shugs declares, “..hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” If you feel that you don’t want to live, that feeling can change. You can learn, over time, to love your heart, your flesh, your hands. Every part of you.
Humans were meant to uplift one another. Embrace the art and skill of receiving. Learn to say no to what doesn’t serve you.Reach out for those people who are willing to hold you up. They are there. If I could find them, you can, too.
In order to continue producing high quality content and expanding the message of radical, unapologetic self-love, we need to build a sustainable organization. To meet these efforts, we’re thrilled to share the launch of our #NoBodiesInvisible subscription service. This service will provide our community with access to additional content and rewards for your monthly investment in furthering our radical self-love work.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a black person, in profile, with black hair in a pony tail. The person has eyes closed and is wearing a red shirt.]