A personal tragedy, a nationwide trend Suicide: Young black men are taking their lives at an unprecedented rate. Worse, society has been slow to recognize the trend and try to stop it.


About 3 o'clock every morning, Anna Roberts awakes in her West Baltimore rowhouse to face the darkness and her despair.

It has happened, she says, without fail since March 4. That was the night her only son, Antwon, 18, hanged himself.

Antwon's death came seemingly without warning. His mother knew he was distressed over the deaths of two Job Corps friends in a Silver Spring train wreck Feb. 16 that killed 11. She never imagined that distress would lead to suicide.

"I don't know what was in his mind, why he couldn't come to me," Roberts says now. "We blame ourselves. We have guilt. Why didn't my child come to me?"

The personal tragedy that has plunged Anna Roberts into grief forms part of a disturbing national trend: Young black men are committing suicide at an unprecedented rate.

From 1980 to 1994, while the national suicide rate was stable, the rate among young black males ages 15 to 19 soared by 196 percent (compared with 24 percent for whites). The rate for black men ages 20 to 24 increased 25 percent (5 percent for whites).

What is worse, because suicide generally is less common among blacks than whites, society has been slow to recognize the deadly trend and seek to stop it.

Suicide is the third-leading killer of young black men, behind homicides and accidents. But black youth suicide gets little attention, partly because homicide claims eight times as many lives in the 15-to-24 age group. More than 4,200 young black men across the nation died in homicides and 556 in suicides in 1994, the latest year for which a racial breakdown is available.

"It's an issue that we put our heads in the sand about. People fear talking about it," said Henry Westray Jr., Maryland's suicide prevention coordinator. "But it's really talking about it that prevents it. If you see a young person who seems depressed or bothered, ask if they've thought about killing themselves."

Kenya Napper Bello of Atlanta publishes a newsletter called "Black Men Don't Commit Suicide." Her point: Black men do commit suicide, and they need help. Bello's husband, Razak, a 27-year-old graduate student who was manic-depressive, jumped to his death from a hotel's 32nd floor in 1994.

"People are amazed that I'm talking about this issue," she said. "They say, 'Black people don't commit suicide. Only crazy white people do that.' "

White males, in fact, accounted for 73 percent of 31,142 U.S. suicides in 1994. Native American men had the highest suicide rate; black women the lowest. Gay males and lesbians may commit up to 30 percent of youth suicides.

No one is sure why whites kill themselves at nearly twice the rate of blacks, who endure negative racial stereotypes and a disproportionate share of poverty. Comedian Dick Gregory has joked: "You can't kill yourself by jumping out of the basement."

Two theories about the difference: Blacks are more religious, and African-American culture has a stronger taboo against suicide.

But, beginning in the mid-1980s, the suicide rate has risen so rapidly among young black men ages 15 to 24 that it may soon overtake the suicide rate of young white males, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Researchers cannot explain why more young black men are killing themselves, but they suggest that several factors may play a role: the 1980s boom in crack cocaine-related violence; the weakening of black church, family and community ties; and the sense that American culture does not value the lives of black men.

Profound hopelessness

In assessing suicide risks, psychologists look for depression or other mental illness; drug or alcohol abuse; previous suicide attempts; impulsive, aggressive behavior; and ready access to lethal means, such as guns.

The common thread in young men's suicide seems to be a profound sense of hopelessness.

Freeman F. Riley, 24, a Louisiana security guard, was despondent over the death of his daughter in February 1995 from sudden infant death syndrome. Eight days later, in his mother's living room, he fired one fatal shot to his head from his .357-caliber Magnum work gun.

His widow, Shirley Riley, says she couldn't see the suicide warning signs that she now recognizes: Her husband once made a suicide attempt as a 13-year-old. He was often depressed, although he wouldn't say so. He just said his job got on his nerves.

"I don't think African-American men want to admit they have a problem," she said. "I know he worried a lot and had mood swings, but I was always trying to keep things peaceful. He needed counseling, medication. Mental illness to me is just like any other sickness. It's something that can be dealt with."

Blacks seek professional help and call crisis hot lines less than others, psychologists say. Suicide is preventable, they add, but prevention begins with talking.

Young men's suicide "often comes out of nowhere," said Dr. David C. Clark, a professor of psychiatry at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago. "Half have never seen a mental health professional. Half have never made suicide attempts before. They get fairly organized, and use something quick, effective and irreversible."

More than 75 percent of young black men who commit suicide use a gun. The recent increase in suicides, fueled in part by the ease of obtaining guns, was in parallel to a rising homicide rate.

Yet "Stop the Killing" rallies seldom, if ever, focus on suicide. Being shot dead on a street corner does not seem to carry the stigma that shooting yourself does.

Edgar K. Wiggins, executive director of the nonprofit Baltimore Crisis Response Inc., recalled that a group of Baltimore high school seniors rebuffed him when he raised the issue of suicide.

"They said the problems in the community that males faced had to do with violence. They basically told me what I could do with my data," he said. "With the African-American community, especially because black males are caught up in macho image stuff, there's even more denial. It really is a critical problem."

Dr. Orlando Davis, a Baltimore psychiatrist who heads Urban Behavioral Associates, a black-operated medical group, said racial stereotyping may keep young black men's depression -- which often surfaces as anger -- from being treated.

"White youth might be referred to the mental health system while black youth might be referred to the criminal justice system," he said.

Young black men consider expressing hopelessness a sign of weakness, said Dr. Sherry Molock, a Howard University psychologist and suicide researcher.

"Because it is such a white cultural phenomenon, many men feel that to commit suicide is to be weak or to be a punk," she said. "It is better to die in a blaze of glory in a drug battle than to kill yourself."

Counselors believe some young black men die in "victim-precipitated homicides" -- in effect, suicides in which someone else pulls the trigger.

'Bravado and image'

Molock recalled counseling a depressed 17-year-old black youth from suburban Maryland who planned to flash an unloaded gun at schoolmates who hazed him.

"The other person doesn't know the gun's not loaded. What will happen when you pull it out?" Molock said she asked. "He said, 'He'll shoot me.' I said, 'You're trying to kill yourself.' He looked at me incredulously and said, 'No, I'm not, I would never do that!'

"Bravado and image are so important," Molock said. "So you put yourself in situations where you know you will be harmed. It's more socially acceptable."

Clark studied all youth suicides in the Chicago area from 1990 to 1994. While he believes that victim-precipitated homicide is rare, he did find several cases of young men, all black, who killed themselves in front of friends.

Suicide, in general, may be under-reported. It is difficult to pinpoint how many single-car accidents and drug overdoses are actually suicides, or how many suicides are misreported to ensure that life insurance benefits are paid. Underreporting may be more common among blacks because of cultural taboos.

Clark said his sample included a mix of young black suicide victims from all economic strata. For every Razak Bello, a former Coca-Cola executive who had won a fellowship from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, there is an Antwon Roberts, a troubled youth trying to find his way in the Job Corps.

Kenya Bello said her mind-set -- "Black Men Don't Commit Suicide" -- didn't allow her to believe that her husband, a brilliant, cosmopolitan man whose manic side came across as high energy, might kill himself.

" 'Zak, you wouldn't take your own life, would you?' " she remembers asking him. "It wasn't a question that I was trying to have some dialogue on. Based on my facial expression and gesture, how could he say yes? I didn't allow him to say yes."

Anna Roberts knew Antwon was devastated by his friends' deaths in the train wreck. She said it pains her that he never was treated for depression.

"I'm depressed right now and getting help for it. My baby had nothing," she said.

The new victims

Grieving relatives such as Roberts are the new victims that every suicide leaves behind. Black families often feel particularly alone.

After her son Mark, a 27-year-old musician, shot himself dead in 1992, Doris Smith of Atlanta went to support groups. She was invariably the only black person there.

"It's stigma. When you mention the word suicide, people freeze," Smith said. "Within our community and our church, we are taught that you show strength, put your trust in the Lord and you go on. We think if you go to counseling, you're crazy, so we don't go. But when you have a loss, you need to go through a grieving process."

Donna Barnes' son Marc, 20, drove his car into the Merrimack River in 1990. The Boston woman found a support group in the suburbs. She remains the lone black face.

Barnes is writing her doctoral dissertation on the black-white disparity in suicide rates. She wrote 53 black churches seeking families of suicide victims. She received only one response -- from a woman who had attempted suicide and needed to talk.

'Doesn't happen, so we say'

If Barnes had had black families with whom to share her pain, "I would've felt that I wasn't alone," she said. "I'd hate to think there must have been something in our family to cause my son to kill himself. When I go to a black community and I'm the only one who has a son who killed himself, I feel a stigma, different, like people are looking at me.

"I'm reluctant to mention [it] around blacks," she added, "because it's something that doesn't happen, so we say."

Reluctance to deal with black youth suicide perpetuates the problem, counselors say.

"Depression is a medical illness," said Davis of Urban Behavioral Associates. "It takes a tremendous toll if you don't diagnose and treat it. You can't lock it up into prison or moralize it away."

Eighteen months ago, Kenya Bello founded a nonprofit organization, Free Mind Generation, to bring suicide among young black men out of the shadows. She envisions unlocking the dark rooms of depression from which some black men find no escape.

"When I think of the potential these young men have and my husband had, I'm absolutely determined to use this pain for a different kind of energy. I have a vision of all these young black men being free of these things that continually plague their minds," she said. "It is not going to be pain that takes me out of this life. Just the opposite."

Where to find help

Here are sources of help for people contemplating suicide and their families:

Maryland Youth Crisis Hotline: (800) 422-0009

Baltimore Crisis Response Inc.: 752-2272

Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network, Marietta, Ga.: (888) 649-1366

Free Mind Generation, P.O. Box 42660, Atlanta, Ga. 30311.

Support groups for families of suicide victims:

Seasons: 882-2937

Compassionate Friends (bereaved parents): 321-7053

Pub Date: 12/09/96

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