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Ending all suffering

Brittney M. Walker | 3/31/2010, 5 p.m.

Back in the day, as seasoned folks would say, death mostly came at a ripe old age when one could reflect on the vast accomplishments in his or her life, smile and be satisfied.

These days, however, death is increasingly coming more swiftly and suddenly.

Between 1999 and 2004, suicide rates among Blacks steadily increased, and show no sign of slowing. While the national average was 10.75 per 100,000, African Americans of all ages are committing suicide at a rate of 5.0 per 100,000. According to Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suicide was the third leading cause of death among Black youth, ages 15 to 24.

Contemplating suicide is not as uncommon as most would like to think, especially among high-school aged Black children. Nationally, 17.1 percent of Black high school students have seriously considered suicide, compared to a national average of seven percent. About 13.5 percent have actually created a plan to kill themselves.

African American suicides are a growing statistic in the United States, with the out-of-control availability of guns, the economic downturn, and a rise in depression rates.

Donna Holland Barns, president and founder of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide says rates since the '80s and '90s have increased 200 percent in age groups 16 to 24 years old, and she suggests a move away from the community may have contributed to the rise.
"Those who grew up in the '50s and '60s spent all day Sunday in the church, and it's not that way (now), as much as it was back then," Barns explained. She added that traditional Black communities were the foundation of stability for African Americans. But we moved out of the traditional Black neighborhoods, away from the traditional Black churches, to the point where our children didn't have any references."

As a result, Black children became isolated. Another theory she suggests is that death certification regulations have changed the face of suicide.
When the suicide rates were lower, pastors and funeral directors wrote death certificates. To save families from embarrassment, shame or insurance issues, suicides looked like homicides and accidents on paper. New requirements prevent manipulation of death certificates, especially because now the only people certifying deaths are forensic medical examiners.

Suicides in the African American community are usually completed by firearm. Barns believes the availability of guns in Black neighborhoods has made it easier for people contemplating suicide to get a hold of a weapon.

"Back in the day, we didn't have guns in our neighborhoods. (Today) 60 percent of suicides in the African American community are done by guns," she explained. "So if you have an opportunity and availability to kill yourself, the chances of you doing it are greater . . . An impulsive act is more likely to occur, if a gun is available."
Suicide rates among Blacks have always been significantly lower than mainstream America (Whites at 13.9 per 100,000, Blacks at 5.0 per 100,000), and people attribute that to various reasons.
According to Barns, typically people of color who kill themselves have experienced ethnic isolation, discrimination and racism.
Sandra Cox, executive director and founder of the Coalition of Mental Health Professionals, believes the rates are significantly lower among Blacks because of a long ancestral resilience.