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.
“Generally the African American person has so much pain and so much drama over so many years. That’s when our people get pushed to the brink of suicide,” she shared. “Other people, mainstream American White folks . . . (during the Great Depression, for example), did you notice how many of them jumped out the window and committed suicide? We’ve known being broke for a long time, and we can deal with that to a certain degree.”
Cox says Blacks deal with problems differently and can endure a greater amount of pain (typically) than Whites, but dealing is not always the best idea.
She says other issues, such as hypertension, diabetes, and cancer can occur as a result of carrying this weight of depression and grief. More often than not, African Americans coping with depression turn to self-medicating methods such as drugs– particularly crack cocaine, and alcohol. Cox calls these methods a slow-death suicide.
Thoughts of suicide come from a variety of factors, including environment, depression and mental illness. Barns emphasizes that four million people across the country are suffering from depression, yet only one percent of them commit suicide.
Suicide is not a hot topic in the Black community, but both Barns and Cox agree it should be talked about more frequently because it is definitely real.
Author of “Lay My Burden Down” and Harvard professor, Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint says suicide brings along with it a sense of shame among family members.
“A lot of Black people deny that Black people have depression, even though Black people invented the blues,” Poussaint said. “Black people don’t talk about suicide. Usually they hide it. There is a lot of shame, so people who have family members who commit suicide will never talk about it. It’s a stigma in the family, so they try to hide it.”
African Americans are also less likely to seek counseling for depression or other serious mental conditions because the resources may not readily available in the community, lack of financial support, or simply because of shame.
Barns stresses that talking about suicide is not going to cause anyone to attempt to kill himself or herself. Religious institutions should be more involved in the conversation, because the church is a constant in the Black community. Getting help is not a sign of weakness, especially when help could save a life, added Barns.
Most of the time, loved ones recognize suicide, when it is too late. It seems sudden when it happens, but there are signs leading up to the breaking point: Change in eating and sleeping habits, withdrawal from normal activities, violent behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, radical personality change, decline in quality of work, physical symptoms related to emotions, and loss of interest in pleasurable activities.
Talking about suicide at home and in the church is the first step to preventing suicide. Cox recommends more church leaders invite mental health professionals to visit and speak to their congregations. She also says being physically active, changing your diet and even going on vacations can work as nature’s own preventative methods.
Learn more about suicide by logging onto nopcas.org. Help is also available locally at the Coalition of Mental Health Professionals, located at 9145 S. Broadway Ave. in Los Angeles.