Suicide is not just a white calamity

It was once so easy for me to believe that suicide was a white thing, that it was not a calamity about which black people need worry themselves. Like many people I grew up with, we were sure that was one area of black exceptionalism. Indeed, even now, official statistics indicate that the rate of suicide among blacks and Hispanics is lower than it is for Native Americans, whites and Asian Americans, in that order.

But just as too much experience eventually disabused blacks of the notion that AIDS was a gay, white, male phenomenon, so, too, should experience awaken us to the fact that a whole lot more black people are victims of suicide than are being tracked by statisticians.

“It doesn’t matter if the African American is in the inner city, where survival is day to day, or in the suburbs, where survival may be week to week,” says psychologist Janice Stevenson, who notes that depression, anxiety and trauma are on the rise among African Americans.

“We live in a society where — especially in the last few years we are seen as disposable,” she said. “Despair leads us to a point of hopelessness, powerlessness and helplessness and a feeling that there is no need to see tomorrow.”

When we pull back the curtains, suicide — the officially recognized kind that results from hanging and self-inflicted gun shots and deliberate overdosing of pills and booze — has had a long presence. The dean of the School of Global Journalism and Communication, where I teach at Morgan State University, has written about the murder-suicide that claimed the lives of his parents when he was an 8-year-old boy growing up in West Baltimore in the 1950s. A friend is still haunted by the unexplained suicide of an upstanding churchman he admired as a teenager in the 1970s. In the six years I’ve lived in Baltimore, I’ve known of three suicides of young people who were Morgan students or alumni. And a friend’s son ended his life a year ago. In the sphere of celebrity, even as we have said that suicide is not a black thing, we have seen actors, football payers, singers, show business impressarios, fashion designers and business executives end it all.

Health professionals who take a closer look detect an epidemic of unreported or misclassified suicides as well as undiagnosed mental disorders.

Annette March-Grier, president of Roberta’s House, a bereavement support center, sees this in drug-related deaths that claim a growing number of black lives. “It isn’t being called what it is,” she says of these self-inflicted deaths, “but it is what it is.”

Ms. Stevenson, the psychologist, sees children suffering from trauma — abusive homes, a loss of loved ones to violence or incarceration, bullying in school — and adults, often outwardly successful, who have undiagnosed depression that stems from their own childhood experiences of loneliness, abandonment or abuse.

The dramatic end of the hope that the Obama years teased us with for eight has also done a number on the psyche of black Americans.

And so we see rage and we also see suicide. Sometimes the end is relatively quick, but often after unsuccessful attempts. More often suicide is slow and in the form of stress-affected illnesses like obesity or the decision to forego medicine for diabetes or asthma. Adolescents die from accidental or passive suicide, Ms. Stevenson says, after engaging in high-risk sexual or criminal behavior.

All this is difficult to reflect in statistics. But like Ms. March-Grier says, “It is what it is.”

Fortunately, more people are bucking tradition and seeking help. When the rapper Logic scored a hit last year with the song, “1-800-273-8255” — the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline — that was a sign of change. Ms. Stevenson’s measure is the tripling of her private practice since last fall. Her clients range in age from 22 to 83. Ms. March-Grier sees more people seeking counseling. And through state-sponsored mental health first aid courses, more people recognize the symptoms of people in crisis and can spring into action. “It’s a bit like teaching everyone the Heimlich maneuver or how to do CPR,” Ms. Stevenson says.

We have had to survive slavery, Jim Crow, marginalization and now, Donald Trump. But help is out there, folks. Let’s do a better job of taking care of ourselves. We matter.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email:

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