When the first news reports of Robin Williams’ death hit the media, few questioned the report that the country’s most beloved comedian had committed suicide.
This reaction stands in stark contrast to the reaction to the 2012 news of the death of “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius. Cornelius was found dead in his home after committing suicide with a firearm. Yet many African Americans believed an intruder must have murdered Cornelius, even after the official report. The myth that “Black folks don’t get depressed, we get the blues” persisted.
And, unfortunately, an opportunity to talk about suicide in the African diasporic communities was missed.
The CDC reports that Black suicide is not only on the rise, but it claims at least one African American every 4.5 hours. And Black males have a higher suicide rate than their counterparts.
I can identify at least five factors contributing to suicide in communities of African descent which, for the most part, go unaddressed: untreated mental illness, homophobic bullying, religion, “Cop-Assisted Suicide,” and the “Strong Black Woman Syndrome.”
Untreated Mental Illness
The leading cause of suicide in African diasporic communities is not only the cultural stigma about mental illness, but also the barriers to mental health treatment.
While health care disparities undoubtedly contribute to the problem, so, too, the lack of Black mental health professional—therapists, counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists.
According to the 2010 data from the American Association of Suicidology, only “4 percent of the nation’s psychiatrists, 3 percent of the psychologists, and 7 percent of social workers, are Black.”
LGBTQ African Americans residing in Black communities are frequently the subjects of bullying, often times leading to their death by suicide or gang violence. In 2009, Ms. Walker found her son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, hanging by an extension cord on the second floor of their home after he endured endless anti-LGBT and homophobic taunts by schoolmates—although Carl never identified as gay.
Later that year, I went to speak that year at the Anti-Bullying Community Forum and Vigil in reference to Carl’s death and spoke with some kids in the Black community of Springfield, Massachusetts about the his death. From talking with them, I learned that Carl’s gender expression was queer—implying there existed “sufficient rationale” to taunt him.
In 2010, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a landmark anti-bullying legislation, cementing the state’s commitment to changing the culture of bullying in schools, and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) was involved in the drafting and legislative process from beginning to end.
Not surprisingly, sisters of African descent are one of the largest religious demographic groups.
A 2012 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey disclosed that 74 percent of African American women revealed that “living a religious life” was very important to us. But our very religious life can also contribute to a cult suicide as Sikivu Hutchinson points out in her article “Jonestown Massacre: How Religion Kills Black Women.”
Because suicide is such a taboo subject and kept on the “down low” in the community, very little research among African American religion scholars and theologians have probed into just how conservative Christianity not only harms our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, but also our grandmothers, mothers, and sisters.
“About 75% of Peoples Temple members were African American, 20% were white and 5% were Asian, Latino, and Native American,” writes Hutchinson.
“The majority of its Black members were women, while its core leadership was predominantly white. As per the cultural cliché, Black women like (sole Jonestown survivor Hyacinth) Thrash were “the backbone” of Peoples Temple, the primary victims of Jonestown, and the population with the deepest investment in the philosophy, ethos and mission of the church,” she writes
Most Black males in America feel they reside in a police state. The hopelessness it engenders among this demographic group has created a cop-assisted suicide culture.
And, sadly, it’s a suicide method very common among African American urban young males. It’s when a young brother deliberately engages in a life-threatening unlawful act that provokes a cop to shoot to the point of killing.
Social stressors such as police profiling, constant images of unarmed Black males being shot by police, high unemployment, incarceration and dropout rates, and family and community violence, to name enough, contribute to Black male suicide.
“How many young men who put themselves in situations where it’s very likely that they’re going to get shot to death are actually committing suicide?” Dr. Alvin Poussaint asked in a recent interview on National Public Radio. “There is such a thing as what we call victim-precipitated homicide, which is suicide. The most classic example would be suicide by cop.”
“Strong Black Woman Syndrome”
In July 2010 a groundbreaking study titled “Black Lesbians Matter” examined the unique experiences, perspectives, and priorities of Black LBT communities. And sadly little was known about it.
The report revealed that LBT women of African descent are among the most vulnerable in our society and need advocacy in the areas of financial security, healthcare, access to education, and marriage equality. The study is akin to a census conducted over several months in 2009-2010 where 1,596 LBT women from regional, statewide, and local organizations in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Denver, and also through an online survey participated.
The study focused on five key areas: health, family/parenting, identity, aging, and invisibility. One key finding of the survey revealed there is a pattern of higher suicide rates among us.
Scholars have associated these higher suicide rates with one’s inability to deal with “coming out” to their faith communities.
When news hit that the lovely 22-year-old Karyn Washington, creator of the uplifting and empowering online site, “For Brown Girls” completed suicide, even “Ebony Magazine” had to ask “Is ‘Strong Black Womanhood’ Killing Our Sisters?”
With the Black community focusing primarily on the “endangered Black male” and the dominant culture also not seeing and hearing African-American voices on this issue, unfortunately, our humanity is distorted and made invisible through a prism of racist and sexist stereotypes.
And, so too is our suffering.
It time to acknowledge that the stigma of suicide is killing us.
Photo via flickr user Bryan Frank
Black or African American