Stop The Stigma: On The Idea Of Being “Too Strong” To Take Your Own Life
“She didn’t commit suicide. She was too strong for that.”
This is a statement made by a caller on a popular talk radio show when referencing the death of Sandra Bland. Although I’m not sure exactly what happened to Bland, the 28-year-old woman who died in police custody, what the caller said immediately made me think about the stigma attached to mental illness in the Black community. Once considered a phenomenon for White people (let’s be real), over the past few years we have seen a staggering number of Black folks taking their own lives. Considering mental illness to be taboo decreases the dialogue that is necessary, in turn causing many to forgo seeking help and eventually taking matters into their own hands. When we fail to take all this seriously, ultimately, we fail our communities.
Most of us were shocked when reports surfaced that legendary Soul Train host Don Cornelius died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head back in 2012. Months later, well-known music executive Chris Lighty died the same way. Since then we’ve seen more and more instances where Black lives have been lost due to suicide. That includes For Brown Girls creator Karyn Washington, who died last April, and Miss Jessie’s co-founder Titi Branch, who passed last December. And just recently, the Lox rapper Styles P posted a heartfelt message on social media informing the public about the loss of his 20-year-old daughter to an apparent suicide.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death among African-American men. Even more startling, a recent study also shows that suicide rates among Black boys ages 5 to 11 have doubled in the past two decades.
The caller’s response to the Sandra Bland question, even if what she was saying was true, actually does more harm than good when it comes to addressing depression and mental health. Black people are supposed to be too strong to suffer aloud; too tough to take our own lives. Laugh or pray your hurt away is what many of us are taught. If you’re sad, hang out with friends and shake it off. If you’re feeling hopeless, go to church and ask your neighbor to pray for you; but whatever you do, don’t break. That’s not what we do. This has become the mentality in Black homes, churches, and communities. And this attitude has caused some to turn away from much-needed help and give in to their despair.
While some people of other races have no problem voluntarily mentioning their frequent visits to their therapists, many Black people fear admitting the need for counseling to some of their closest family and friends. According to the CDC, White people are twice as likely to receive help for psychological distress when compared to Blacks. To most in our community, it’s considered a sign of weakness; but with the increase of suicides, specifically in males, the facade that “everything is under control” needs to stop.
If you know someone who is suffering in any way, either from a recent incident that’s causing great levels of grief or if their behavior or attitude has changed for the worse, talk to them. Be understanding and encourage them to seek help.
While we chant that Black Lives Matter after learning of tragic acts committed at the hands of others, let’s also chant this as we broaden the discussion on suicide and mental health in our communities. It’s no longer a ‘White people practice’ or problem. Depression and suicide knows no particular race or socioeconomic class. And we have to take it seriously before we lose more Black lives.