By ReShonda Tate
Researchers are sounding the alarm about the number of young Black men who are dying by suicide; from the 26-year-old son of award-winning actress and director Regina King, to Kevin Ward the young Black mayor of Hyattsville, MD.
Some in the African American community are speaking out to raise more awareness about suicide and mental health, especially when it comes to Black men.
“Unfortunately, Black men often suffer in silence,” said therapist Nettie Jones, MS, LPC. “They don’t seek the help that sometimes women will reach out to get. We’ll call our girlfriends, let them know that things are not okay. But unfortunately, Black men tend not to do that. They hold things in; they self-medicate; they are workaholics. They kind of do stuff that’s not very healthy.”
This year’s theme for Black History Month, as set by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, is “Black Health and Wellness.”
The theme not only commemorates African Americans who made contributions to medicine but also highlights ongoing issues within the Black community, including mental health. Jones said, now more than ever is the opportunity to have discussions around Black men and suicide.
“I am hopeful that this will raise awareness for African American men that they too suffer from depression or times where they really feel low. Hopefully, this will start a dialogue, a kitchen conversation that we feel comfortable talking about in our communities,” Jones added.
While rates of suicide and anxiety have risen sharply during the pandemic, a recent study from the journal JAMA finds that suicide attempts have been rising at an alarming rate long before COVID-19.
The study found that Black males had the highest increase in suicide attempts compared to any other race in the group, for example, increasing nearly 80%.
When Cheryl Jackson read the news of Ian Alexander Jr.’s death, her heart sank; not just because she was a big fan of Regina King, but because she was a mother.
“My son was 25 when he took his life. His father and I had no idea he was struggling mentally. And to this day, we have no idea what led him to do something so drastic. He had a new job. He had a girlfriend. As far as we could tell, everything was fine.”
Had it not been for a note he left, she would’ve believed it was foul play.
“He just asked us not to hate him and that he was just tired of the day-to-day struggle. I must’ve screamed at that note for days, ‘what struggle???’ We later learned he had been having bouts of depression, but never told anyone except his best friend,” Jackson said.
Jones says it’s not uncommon for loved ones to miss the signs.
“People know how to mask. Everybody knows how to put that mask on. When you walk out, you put it on. When you come home, for some men, you put it on. And everything is fine until it’s not,” Jones said.
Suffering in silence
The study’s authors said young Black men face financial hardship, among other stressors, and may have untreated mental health needs.
“It’s an awful perfect storm of a number of factors,” Alfiee M. Breland-Noble, Ph.D. and founder of the AAKOMA project, said about the reasons behind the upward trend.
Breland-Noble pointed to the fact that young Black men are discriminated against in school and can often be perceived as older than they are.
There is also a lack of Black therapists to speak to young Black men about the hardships they face. No matter how well-meaning a non-Black psychologist is, Breland-Noble said, they can’t relate to the lived experiences of a young Black man.
“They don’t understand the concepts that your family has to deal with, the day-to-day stressors. They don’t understand racial trauma, they don’t understand racism-induced stress,” Breland-Noble said.
Silencing the stigma
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, negative attitudes and beliefs toward people who suffer from mental health challenges are prevalent within the U.S. and can be particularly strong within the Black community.
“Other barriers to help-seeking have been mistrust of the medical system and gatekeeping by the Black church,” said therapist Logan Wilson, who specializes in the treatment of Black males. “Many still believe that there’s no need to go and sit on a stranger’s couch when they can find what they need in the safety and comfort of a pew, or in prayer with the pastor.”
Jones said it’s imperative that we give Black men the forum to talk.
“The more we talk about it, the more we normalize the conversation,” she said.
Dispelling myths is also key.
“Asking someone if they are suicidal will not increase the risk that they will die by suicide,” said Wilson. Inquiring about potential self-harm in a compassionate way may instead provide an opportunity for the person to express their feelings and reach out for help.
What to look for?
Though Jones said it’s not always easy to see the signs, there are some things to look for.
“Notice habits that change. Noticing hygiene, mood shifts, increased irritability or agitation, or decreased activity. Not wanting to go or do anything, sleeping more, just having a low mood. Sometimes you have to ask the hard questions and just not say things like, are you okay?”
Experts say you should also point out celebrities like Wayne Brady and Charlamagne tha God who openly talk about their mental health problems, inspiring young Black men to open up.
“They’re able to see people who look like them who have said ‘Yeah, this is something I struggle with too.’ In a tiny way it decreases the stigma in terms of the conversation,” Breland-Noble said.
Suicide by the numbers
10th – leading cause of death in the U.S.
Every 11 minutes someone dies
Increased 35% from 1999 to 2018
Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective
Black Men Heal: