She encouraged others to accept themselves, yet she may have expected too much of herself. Though she was thoughtful and humble, she was bold and fierce in her activism successfully leading a national campaign to empower young Black women. In the midst of experiencing one of life’s cardinal heartbreaks, the death of her mother, she was nurturing the lives of others. She was strong. She was vulnerable.
These contradictions and remarkable achievements of blogger-activist Karyn Washington have been well-documented since her reported suicide last week at the tender age of 22. Understandably, the most perplexing contradiction is that the young woman who wrote the uplifting words, “Obstacles… adversity has made me strong. Having things happen in my life that make me want to give up or doubt my abilities, and then getting through it is encouraging,” seemingly gave up on life. It is appropriate that Washington's suicide is stimulating conversation around race and mental illness. There is no denying that mental health stigma is just as debilitating as mental illness in the African American community. However, a discussion that fails to address how our beliefs, including our long-standing commitment to upholding the blood-stained banner of the Strong Black Woman (SBW), are figuratively and literally limiting our lives would be remiss and overly simplistic.
As the online eulogies pour in for Washington, it seems, she, like so many other public women who chose to end their lives, suffered not in silence but in plain sight. As the post-script contradictions reveal, broken hearts and troubled minds are masked by fabulosity, “got-it-togetherness,” and Mammyism. At the same time, the contradictions also unveiled deep judgment, specifically judgment about how our sisters experience and manage emotional and psychological struggles.
Karyn Washington's suicide is sadly just one example of one of our best and brightest taking their own lives, or trying to or considering it. Don Cornelius’ surprising fall, the deaths of Lee Thompson Young and popular Hampton grad Yusuf Neville and Fantasia Barrino’s very public attempt recently brought to light the fact that deep sadness and desperation often characterize a choice to end one’s life. Interestingly, the causes of suicide rest in not only the lives of the famous, but also are descriptive of the experiences of Black women across social class and the lifespan. Historically, suicide rates in the Black community were lower than Whites and other ethnic groups however, recent research has identified an increase in rates due to the tendency of the community to explain a suicide as an accidental death and/or even the result of homicide.
Researchers have also highlighted suicide risk and protective factors for Black women. Common risks include unresolved childhood abuse and resulting trauma reactions, relationship with an abusive partner; experiences with racism and managing the chronicity of daily hassles, while connection to family, friends, and community, as well as the ability to ask for help and resources when needed were deemed protective factors. Effective treatment for depressed Black women focuses on increasing hopefulness and self-esteem through interpersonal connections. Does all this mean the key to treating Black women’s depression is to remove our SBW armor and allow ourselves to be more vulnerable?
I am sure that Washington's family and friends wonder why she did not reach out to them. Was she able to identify her supports and resources? Or more accurately, what do we do for SBWs who are not likely to ask for help?
As scholar and Crunk Feminist Collective contributor Robin Boylorn wrote of Barrino, "I did not immediately admit that I could relate to Fantasia’s hopelessness because there are precious few women friends who won’t judge or chastise you (a Black woman) for not being strong."
It seems addressing the issue of suicidality among Black women is complicated by their unwillingness to show their symptoms. Perhaps, there is a need for a closer look underneath the veneer of the cool-posed Black woman who apparently has everything, and is so well-put together. While it would be nice if the telltale signs of moodiness, overeating, over-drinking, sleeplessness or sleeping too much was enough, perhaps her 24-7 unflappability, amazing sense of style and snappy verbal comebacks are likely better indicators of her symptoms. If we could trust her to tell us that she was sexually abused by a family member, or that she has silenced herself at work to manage the discrimination/stress she faces because she is both Black and female, we would not be fooled by the fact she never cries and always seems to be in control.
The fact is we cannot sit idly by as this continues to happen. We have to pry, ask her questions and let her know that we are interested. In a perfect world we would all have a take-home suicide prevention kit, but the truth is mental illness is much messier than that and requires the community to identify, support and direct its members to mental health care when needed.
In the end, like Karyn Washington, we will all be remembered for some of our contradictions but, will we fall victim to them?
Dr. Anissa Moody is a psychologist and educator in New York City. She has published papers and given talks on the practice of mental hygiene and the social constructions of race, health, and gender among many topics. By sharing her expertise on current topics, Dr. Moody aims to raise awareness of mental health and highlight the importance of mental hygiene in enriching people's lives. Tweet her@Frame_OfMind or join her on Facebook.
Dr. Wendi S. Williams is a psychological consultant and educator in Brooklyn, NY. Her work centers on the interrelationship between goal-achievement and spiritual-emotional health and wellness. Through the development and implementation of educational and wellness interventions, she works with clients to explore internal and external challenges to meeting their goals. Dr. Williams writes on these topics and more on her blog at CHRYSALIStransform.com.