Why Black men are killing themselves, warning signs, and what to do if you’re worried about someone.
Never woulda thought in years that my homie was suicidal
Had it all: money and kids and a wife that read the bible
They say it’s life and death in the slum
He had his reasons; I shoulda believed him
—Scarface, “The Suicide Note”
On January 5th, 2013, up and coming rap artist Freddy E took to his Twitter account, and submitted several messages which seemingly reflected feelings of anguish and despair. He then sent a final message expressing love for his parents and proceeded to take his own life. The 22-year-old was later found dead in his apartment of a reported self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Although there has been widespread speculation that the rap artist was having a difficult time coping with a recent relationship cessation, no definitive information confirming his reason for killing himself has been made public.
I do not pretend to know exactly what the young man was struggling with when he made the decision to take his life. However, I can say that oftentimes the individual struggling with depression is convinced that he/she is experiencing unbearable pain. Furthermore, the person may believe that such anguish has no end. That is to say, he/she feels horrible about his/herself (“bad me”) their current circumstances (“bad world”), and he/she believes the future is likewise horrible (“bad future”).
It is also possible that his leaving messages on Twitter were in some way a call for help. As I said in an earlier paper published on this site, it is my belief that most individuals, even those who complete suicide, remain conflicted about the act. Some part of the person desires to live, yet has a difficult time believing that life will improve.
The specific reasons why Freddy E chose to end his life remain unclear. What is clear, however, is that his suicide marks the fifth time in the past year that a high profile African American male has taken his own life. This includes the late Maestro of Soul Train Donald Cortez “Don” Cornelius, 44-year-old Hip hop executive and pioneer Chris Lightly, 19-year-old rap artist Capital Steez and 25-year-old professional football player Jovan Belcher, the latter of which killed his child’s mother before shooting himself in the presence of his coach and general manager.
In addition, thousands of African American males, who may not have the celebrity to make mainstream media news, take their lives each year. In fact, suicide currently represents the third greatest killer of African American males ages 15-24. According to the American Association of Suicidology, in 2007, among African Americans, males accounted for 82% of completed suicides. One African American dies by suicide every 4.5 hours. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the method of self-harm most frequently used in completed suicide was firearms.
Historically, Blacks maintained low rates of completed suicide; however, beginning in the 1980s, such behavior skyrocketed, increasing by 200 percent in some age groups. It should be noted that the numbers of completed suicides have been slowly declining since 2003. Despite this, in addition to the individual loss of life, the emotional and psychological cost to family members, friends and entire communities are enormous.
Why does suicide remain the number three killer of adolescent African American males and how can we begin to curb this incidence?
Some authors have reported that there is a silence within the Black community around depression and suicide. Feeding this silence is the erroneous notion that depression and suicide do not affect large numbers of African Americans; such issues are even thought to be a phenomenon of White Americans. Depression and suicide thus remain stigmatized, even as nearly two thousand African Americans commit suicide each year.
The stigma of mental illness is present in numerous ethnocultural communities. However, there appears to be a unique rejection of the mental health system within the Black community. This stigma dissuades Black men from seeking help, leaving them to agonize in isolation.
In addition to culturally mediated messages which may prevent help-seeking behaviors; it is also fair to say that many in the African American community have internalized mainstream (White male) patriarchal values. Such beliefs include the notion that ‘real men’ do not express emotions, with the exception of anger. Also associated with these beliefs is the view that to seek assistance with emotional pain is ‘weak’.
Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders acknowledged during a recent interview that while going through a divorce he, too, experienced severe depression which led to thoughts of suicide. The former two-sport athlete explained that he was often in the role of advisor or care-taker with his family and friends, therefore when he was overcome with sadness he felt he had no one with whom he could confide.
In addition to the culpability of the community, it is my assertion that the mental health field must also be held accountable for its failure to adequately reach out to African Americans.
Researchers such as Professor Jim Dobbins have appropriately critiqued the mental health field for its historical legacy of institutional racism, lack of cultural sensitivity among mental health practitioners, lack of theoretical attention to socio-cultural variables and the tendency for people of color to erroneously receive more severe diagnoses when presenting for mental health services. Each of these dynamics directly contributes to low service utilization and high treatment dropout rates for African American males.
How can we help?
On the interpersonal level we can begin by engaging in open and honest discussions. We can begin to demystify depression and suicide as well as create an atmosphere where conversations about intense sadness become normalized.
It is also important to stay in touch with warning signs. Most people who are seriously considering suicide typically give overt indication of their intentions. Here is a list of important signs to be aware of. It should be noted that this list is by no means exhaustive:
- Dramatic change in behavior
- Talking repeatedly about death and dying
- Giving away prized possessions
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Uncharacteristically withdrawing
- Recent significant losses such as someone close dying, loss of job, home, money, status
- Unusual anger outbursts or aggressive behavior
- Frequent crying or otherwise expressing sadness
- Dramatic mood swings
- Lack of eating or sleeping as well as the opposite, eating or sleeping all the time
- Hyperactivity or acting out behavior, particularly in young people
- Depression that seems to quickly disappear for no apparent reason
In isolation, any one of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that the person is thinking of suicide. However, my suggestion is that should you become the slightest bit concerned, simply check in with the person.
Furthermore, at times we may ask a friend “what’s wrong” and they respond “nothing.” However, if you remain convinced that there may be something concerning about their disposition, then I suggest you keep asking. It may even help to talk with their other friends and family to see if there is a pattern to their behavior.
Also, be aware of the resources in your community. I strongly suggest counseling/therapy if you or anyone you know is experiencing symptoms consistent with depression or is having thoughts of suicide.
As mentioned earlier, the mental health field in general must play a more central role both in providing critical outreach to communities of color as well as ensuring that practitioners are equipped to understand the importance of cultural context in providing competent clinical care.
The one size fits all approach is etiologically incongruent with the realities of African American men. One way to overcome the inherent problems is for clinicians to be culturally competent enough to integrate culture into their interventions and modify as needed.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In the U.K., ring the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.
Read more on Suicide.