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African American males and suicide: Changing attitudes require a new look

Mary Hill-Wagner | 10/13/2010, 5 p.m.

"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? There is such a thing as what we call victim-precipitated homicide, which is a suicide," said Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a noted professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The doctor made his comments in a March 2008 interview with National Public Radio.

"The most classic example would be suicide by cop, which you read about in the newspaper from time to time, where people wanted to be shot; to be killed because they were suicidal, but they didn't want to do it themselves. And sometimes they don't want to do it themselves, because there's still a stigma attached to committing suicide, so they'd rather have someone else kill them or have it seem like an accident, that they really didn't want to do it, but yet they were suicidal," Poussaint said in the radio interview.

However, Joe said information is difficult to access on suicide by cop or victim-precipitated homicide- where someone may have wanted to be killed because they were suicidal and didn't want to do it themselves.

Future study should focus on getting mental help resources to Blacks and studying the nature of masculinity among Blacks in order to make the seeking out of such services less stigmatized, he said.

"We need to look at why Black youth do not go to services, and why they drop out when they do," Joe said. "With males in general, you have to deal with this masculinity issue. If you express emotion, this is considered weakness. The idea of masculinity and not emoting has put these young boys in emotional straight jackets. They can't turn to their families because they believe 'our boys should be strong enough,'" Joe said. "You have to allow them a space to emote. You must continue to do health education with families; not just medication, and you have to encourage families to keep them coming (to psychiatric sessions)."

Barnes agrees. "There's a stigma of having a mental illness and a stigma about being treated for it. (African Americans) believe it's a character flaw (to have a mental illness)," she said. Or they may even go as far to say, it's a weakness, Barnes said.

"I asked, 'why aren't we discussing this?"' Barnes remembers. "I started talking about (suicide). Then, people would talk to me privately. And my position was, why are we whispering?"
Today, the organization reaches many people of color and encourages them to find out information about suicide, so that loved ones can pick up on the signs that someone may be contemplating taking his life.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, warning signs of suicide include a person who may be idealizing suicide; demonstrating feelings of hopelessness; abusing substances; demonstrating feelings of purposelessness; demonstrating feelings of being trapped; isolating oneself from others; and demonstrating recklessness, anger and mood changes.

"We're reaching people now, and we're putting it on the minds of families, so they can look out for family members. The people around them need to be able to pick up the signs, like talking negatively about everything; thinking no one cares or isolating themselves," Barnes said.