Last November, after reading “Preventing Suicides in the Black Community” by Gaynor Hall and Pam Grimes, a quote that echoed in my head was, “Black kids don’t kill themselves.”
Those words saddened me, partly because they followed the death of a wonderful young woman, Marcie Gerald, a 15-year-old teen who committed suicide last summer and whose story was also featured on JET last fall. Even in 2016, a social media “tell all” era, the age of instant information, the common belief that suicide is a "white thing" is still prevalent.
Truthfully, suicide and the unrelenting emotional stress, trauma, and pain it causes has no color. At the end of the day, Black youth bleed like everyone else. They hurt like everyone else. They suffer emotional and physical traumas that can’t be easily cast off…like everyone else.
I understand the rationale for not wanting to be associated with staggering suicidal statistics. Blacks are often at the epicenter of breaches in health, wealth, and safety. Black parents, for example, welcome the day when the morning news doesn’t open with an account of another Black teen being gunned down.
Historically, statistics have not reported the complete truth. In the 1980s, suicide rates among white teens were considerably (157%) greater than Blacks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Later that rather large gap shrank to a 42% difference, still with more white youth choosing to end their lives. Recently, though, a pediatric study showed a decrease in suicidal acts among white youth while the rate continued to rise among Black youth, particularly among Black boys, ages 5 to 11. In Cook County over the past six years, 200 deaths were ruled youth suicides; Black teens represented one-fourth of that number.
Suicide in the Black community has been an issue for some time. From a cultural perspective, suicide is taboo, a sin, or the ultimate sign of weakness. Suicide is something we don’t talk about or admit, so how can it be accurately reported? But in the words of a 16-year old female patient from Country Club Hills, IL, suicide is a way out, the only way to deal with depression and being made to feel like a social outcast.
Still, suicide doesn’t happen all at once.
Before suicide becomes an action, it can start with ideas or thoughts of ending one’s life. Teens don’t always share their feelings, so their hesitance to share thoughts of suicide is no surprise. Sometimes, however, teens will exhibit signs that they’re in trouble. They may show a dramatic shift in behavior or attitude. A teen who shifts from “As” to failing grades in school could be in crisis. Signs of physical scars, mood swings, paranoia, or expressions of helplessness or hopelessness may well indicate teens have considered suicide, even if they have not expressed it yet. When teens express wanting to end their lives, parents should not sit on this information, hoping their kids are just experiencing growing pains. Parents need to be vigilant, seeking help the minute they recognize erratic changes or departures in their children’s usual customs or behaviors.
Even then, the signs are not always so obvious. The mother of the 16-year-old client I mentioned earlier said she didn’t notice her daughter was in trouble until after her first suicidal attempt.
“My daughter seemed happy all the time, and our family [did] a lot of things together.”
It is hard to believe that a happy teen from a tight-knit family would attempt to end her life, but it’s not uncommon. Teens may look like adults, but they do not have the maturity to get beyond depression or emotional traumas from sexual or physical abuse, feeling a lack of control in their own lives, or feeling victimized or isolated by urban violence, poverty, or a myriad of social issues.
My clients often say, “My kid knows right from wrong.” I tell them that may be true, but it’s not a matter of whether they know right from wrong. It’s what they will do in that moment. It’s what they may do when they collide with a wall of sadness and despair that, alone, they just can’t get beyond.
I encourage parents to believe their teens when they express despair or suicidal thoughts. Open the lines of communication. Avoid feeling guilty or embarrassed. Recruit the village, the teen’s favorite teacher, grandparents, or friends, to be willing listeners. Create a safety plan barring ready access to things like pharmaceuticals or guns. Agree upon a code word that your child can use to avoid admitting to thoughts of suicide while alerting the parent that he or she is in crisis. Seek help from a mental health clinician.
Though I hate to be the bearer of news that Blacks, particularly our youth are at the epicenter of yet another crisis, I know parents who have lost children to suicide would want me to dispel the myth that suicide is a "white thing." Actually, suicide is “blacker” than we care to admit, and we can only save our children by talking about it and taking action.
Dr. Summer Matheson is a mental health services clinician and the Chief Operating Officer of the Laynie Foundation, a mental health service provider in Matteson, Illinois that services African American youth in Cook and Will Counties. For more information about Dr. Matheson or the Laynie Foundation, visit www.layniefoundation.org or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Matheson also encourages youth or their parents in trouble to call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.