“Black people don’t commit suicide. That’s a white thing.”
Who said that? That is a false statement. Blacks suffer from mental illness just like their white counterparts. In fact, when you think of everyday stressors, systematic-racism such as police brutality, education and health care gaps, and sexism that impacts black women, blacks are more likely to be at risk for developing a mental condition.
Although July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, this week, September 5-11 is National Suicide Prevention Week and it is a perfect time to shed light on what many deem a nonexistent problem. Schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, dissociative identity disorder/multiple personality disorder, bulimia, ADHD, OCD and social anxiety are examples of mental illnesses that people battle daily. In the black community, many choose not to acknowledge mental illness as a sickness. Diseases such as diabetes and cancer are accepted as normal and natural, but what so many fail to realize is that blacks are no different than any other race when it comes to these illnesses. We are not exempt from mental illness.
While some experience mental illness only once in their life (depending on the illness, environment, life stressors, and genetics), others battle mental illness for the rest of their lives. Some of us think that we do not have a problem and truly believe that everyone else is the issue. Unfortunately, these myths and illusions force us to suffer in silence and not seek treatment. Mental illness affects “everyday functional” people and it is not limited to the homeless man talking to himself. It impacts a person’s emotions, perception, and behaviors.
As a person with major depression and generalized anxiety disorders, the comments said to me have been heartbreaking and mind-blowing because it prevented me from seeking help. I thought that I was making it up in my head even though I didn’t feel well for years. Finally diagnosed at 25, my doctor stated that the illness started around the age of 13. Can you imagine having cancer without being diagnosed for over 10 years? You would die. Well, I can tell you that I was dying on the inside and it led to multiple suicide attempts. My illness can get so debilitating. At one point, it stopped me from doing basic things such as going to work, talking, eating and showering.
Here are some of the myths that we must stop saying!
Myth #1: Only white people commit suicide.
Fact: According to by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate of black children in between the ages of 5 and 11 doubled between 1993 and 2013 and the rate among white children committing suicide declined. Suicides by hanging nearly tripled among black boys. While whites still have highest suicide rates in the country, suicide rates among black youth have significantly grown over the past decade. Unfortunately, black youth are killing themselves more frequently than their elders. Suicide has become the third leading cause of death among black people between the ages of 15 and 24 and a leading cause of death among school-aged children younger than 12 years in the United States.
Myth #2: Medication doesn’t work and/or they make you feel worse.
Fact: Medication is necessary for some individuals in their mental recovery. While they are NOT cures for mental illness, they are vital for treating the symptoms. Some may need medication for the rest of their lives (depending on the illness) and others only need it for a specific time. Nonetheless, medication is not a sign of weakness and it does not mean the person is crazy. It is no different from taking medication for high blood pressure or insulin for diabetes. Just like the body gets sick, the brain gets sick too, if you don’t take care of it. And no, this is not to say that everyone with a mental illness will need medication, but it is an invaluable help to many.
Myth #3: Black people don’t go to therapy.
Fact: Though there has been a deep-rooted stigma about seeking therapy, Blacks are increasingly seeking therapy for mental illness. Therapy is great whether you have a mental illness or not. Therapy helps you to work on yourself, dissect problems, face fears and overcome obstacles such as breakups, loss of a loved one, financial challenges, self-image issues, abuse, etc. As mentioned previously, blacks deal with oppression daily and therapy can help us work through it. Those who are still hesitant to try therapy can look into other ways of getting help. The support of a life coach has also been shown to be beneficial for many.
Myth #4: You can pray it away.
Fact: As a Christian, I have seen God perform miracles in my life. But when you say to a person “just pray,” you are assuming that they are not praying and dismissing how they feel, challenging the sincerity of their faith, and most likely preventing them from getting treatment. You would not say “just pray” to a person who broke a leg. You would tell them to go to the doctor for an x-ray and cast. We must treat mental illness the same. God also gives us resources to use on earth and sometimes that may be therapy and medication when a person is battling a mental illness.
Damian Waters is a marriage and family therapist in Upper Marlboro, MD, where he serves predominantly African American clients. On the issue of the stigma surrounding blacks seeking therapy, he says, “There’s some shame and embarrassment. You’ll tell someone that you went to the doctor, but you won’t tell that you went to the counselor or psychiatrist. Also, there is the idea that their faith should carry them through, though often their problems are larger than that.”
As a way to honor those with mental illness, please think before you speak, and encourage those who need help to seek treatment. Mental illness is just as serious as any other disease and those affected by it should not be judged or outcast. Mental illness is a flaw in brain chemistry, not a character flaw, or a white people problem.
Can you think of other myths surrounding Blacks and mental illness? Share them below along with your thoughts on putting the myths to rest once and for all.
Also, the 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported that, compared to non-Hispanic white boys, black high-school age boys are more likely to have made serious suicide attempts that require medical attention.
Suicide has become a leading cause of death in the U.S. among all age groups, but particularly in youth and young adults. It is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds. Parents, teachers and professionals must be able to both talk about it and understand the risks for vulnerable children of any race. But those of us who work with black youth may also need to address some myths about suicide in the African American community.
For example, one such myth has its start almost three decades ago, Kevin Early and Ronald Akers’ interviews with African American pastors concluded that suicide is a “white thing” and that black people are accustomed to struggling through life challenges without succumbing to suicide. those authors concluded that black people see suicide as a “white thing” but it is a myth that black people do not die by suicide.
Based on anecdotal conversations that many others and I have heard in day-to-day conversations and that sometimes emerge in popular media, this opinion about suicide in the black community has shifted relatively little.
More importantly, black youth at risk may even be more difficult to identify than non-black youth. One study referred to college age racial/ethnic minority people, including African Americans, as “hidden ideators” who are less likely than other youth to disclose thoughts of suicide. Because suicide is occurring and at shockingly young ages, comprehensive efforts are needed to address this public health problem.
Studies suggest that stigma about mental illness and the feeling that one will be outcast further or ignored may keep black youth from sharing their thoughts. Also, public health and mental health experts may be unaware that suicide risk factors could show up differently depending on ethnic group.
Simply put, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for identifying suicide risk. And little or no action has been taken to address the increasing crisis. As an African American psychologist, I find this frustrating when children’s lives are lost – lives that could be saved.
Unique needs in African American mental health
Most mental health services are not designed with cultural and social nuances in mind. My research team has found consistently that the challenges that black kids face in navigating dual cultural contexts may increase their risk of suicidal thoughts.
In research on adults, we found that black men and women who used more Eurocentric or individualist approaches that was more self-focused rather than managing stress via the belief in a Higher Power were more likely to consider suicide. This was not true for those who used more culturally meaningful, spiritual coping.
When there are cultural differences, therapists must be willing to “think outside of the box” to fully evaluate risk for suicide. As an example, the racism that black Americans encounter increases stress for many. Thus, their stressors and mental health issues will need different solutions and approaches than treatments that work for white people.
In another study published in Comprehensive Psychiatry, we observed different patterns of risk for black adults compared to white adults who were admitted for psychiatric care. We examined sleep-related problems, which are elevated among black Americans, and suicide because sleep issues are a serious but understudied risk factor for suicide crisis. It turns out that inadequate sleep can escalate an emotional crisis. Our research found that problems staying awake for activities such as driving or engaging in social activities, which reveal inadequate sleep, were associated with a four-fold greater risk for suicide crisis compared to non-suicide crisis in black adults who were admitted for psychiatric treatment.
Caring adults are a child’s first line of defense. If a child discloses that he is thinking about dying, it is important to ask him to share more about his ideas and if he knows he might die. If a child has a suicide plan, it is time to get professional help.
The Crisis Text Line at 741741 could be an option for teens who need help to cool down in a crisis.
When it comes to finding a mental health professional, parents need an expansive list of referral options, including university-affiliated mental health clinics that offer evidence-based services on a sliding scale and federally qualified health centers for the uninsured. Regardless of the setting, a well-trained therapist may be of a different race.
Parents and caregivers must be willing to sit, listen and try to fully understand what is most upsetting for a child who is experiencing a difficult situation and a lot of emotions.
For those who believe that the alarming statistics will eventually reverse course without any action, this may be true. In the meantime, saving one life is worth the effort.
Thoughts of suicide do not mean that a child or teen needs to be hospitalized. It means they are in emotional pain and want the pain to end. Adults can investigate the problem and remove it or help the child deal with it. Online resources such as Stopbullying.gov include interactive videos that are useful to parents, educators and youth. Suggesting to a child that she “get over it” is less than helpful. A child who is already in a vulnerable state cannot problem-solve without meaningful support from the caring adults in charge.
The idea of suicide is absolutely unthinkable to most. However, if you look at it through the eyes of someone in the darkness of depression, the anxiety of schizophrenia, the confusion of bi-polar disorder and so many others, many people may consider ending it all to have peace.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among Americans. However, mental health is nothing new in the black community, and those who are suffering silently may not always feel that they have a welcoming seat at the table to be comforted or healed.
Mental health is sometimes undermined in the Black community because those who have suicidal thoughts feel that they may be considered “insane” or too weak to withstand life’s circumstances. And then, there are those within the faith community who may say that dealing with suicidal thoughts is as simple as giving it to God or “pray it away.”
But what happens when you’re a Christian and still suffer from mental illness and suicidal thoughts? And what is the church’s role in helping these people?
Josceleyne, 28, had a late diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Amidst the diagnosis she injured her back, lost her job, and lost her insurance; however, she continued to pursue her Master’s degree while being loved by her loyal husband and children.
Due to her sudden loss of income, Josceleyne accrued more student loan debt and extremely was anxious about her financial stability. As a result of all she was going through, Joscelyne, a devout Christian, turned to her pastor for assistance and didn’t receive the response she was expecting. She also felt a lack of emotional support from her church family after her diagnosis, due to what she believed was a lack of understanding, according to family members.
And like others before her, Josceleyne was told to “pray harder,” instead of seeking professional help on how to cope with her current situation.
As time went on, Josceleyne began to take a combination of pain medication to subdue the wrenching back pain and sleeping pills because of her insomnia. Then, one night she accidentally overdosed on her medications and ended her life.
Josceleyne’s family says there was an overwhelmingly negative response to her accidental death that included gossip on her mental state, speculation on why she did not hand her issues to God, and limited support from the community.
Often, the stigma of mental illness in the Black community is that it is a personal issue, not a result of chemical imbalance. However, when people have cancer or other incurable diseases the community may offer sympathy and prayer. There is nothing immoral about seeking medical attention for those ailments, so why would there be criticism for incurable, mental illness?
As Christians, we cannot place the burden on those who suffer. According to Ephesians 6:18, we are told to “be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.”
“Don’t Give Up Like Me.”
Often, members of the black community are raised to avoid cracking under pressure and staying strong even in the midst of chaos. So, mood disorders, such as depression, are viewed as a weakness instead of an illness, which often leads to thoughts of suicide.
Angie, an educated woman in her 20’s, knows this story all too well.
Just a few years ago, her budding, post-recession career was falling apart repeatedly, along with her long-term relationship. And although she appeared to have it all together, she lived just above the poverty line.
As a result of all that was going on, and despite her prayer and praise, Angie finally gave up hope. She made peace with ending her life because she got tired of repeatedly failing, being poor, and felt like a waste of God’s time. Upon making her decision she called her best friend, Elle, and said, “Don’t give up like me. I can’t do it anymore, but you can make it. Just don’t give up.”
On that day, Elle immediately became one of God’s vessels by crying with Angie, discussing her decision, offering encouragement and pushing her to get back up. Then, Angie received additional support from her cousin, Dylan, who sat up with her well into the night to bring her to the source of pain so she could begin to heal.
Soon after, Angie reluctantly went to her pastor and feared condemnation, but instead her concerned pastor simply asked,“Why.” And, even after she explained all of her reasons for wanting to end her life, Angie’s pastor offered both scripture and words of encouragement during her time of need.
Angie says that having Elle, Dylan, and her pastor allowed her to know that nothing was greater than love, especially self-love, which is an extension of God’s love.
How many of us have already written our mental obituaries with the headline, “Don’t Give Up Like Me,” because it was assumed that no one would be there to help us? Is it truly better to suffer alone when we are all a part of God’s family?
By bringing the issue to the forefront, it will help to erase the stigma, recognize the signs/symptoms, and create an avenue of help for those who are suffering.
Ways to Help Those Suffering from Mental Illness
Establish an understanding of what mental illness and mood disorders really are
Consider establishing resources right there in your church, including in-house training for staff, informational videos and pamphlets for parishioners.
Invite speakers who have survived mental illness to come in and speak to members of the congregation.
Consider preaching sermons on mental illness and mood disorders.
Organize events centered around mental health
Provide resources that will connect those in need with the right programs and medical professionals.
Available resources and support for people with mental illness