News & Politics

Breaking the Silence on Black Suicide

Black leaders and parents still operate under the notion that black youths just don't commit suicide. But new data show that isn't true, and the sooner black communities overcome their denial, the better.
In his stage days, comedian turned political activist Dick Gregory liked to crack that whites kill themselves by leaping from tall buildings and blacks kill themselves by jumping from a basement.

For decades, blacks took perverse pride and comfort in the notion that suicide was a "white folks' thing." Despite the long, tortured experience of slavery, segregation, racially motivated violence and poverty, it was their article of faith that blacks didn't kill themselves. They were always able to laugh or pray their way out of the worst adversity.

But suicide among blacks is no longer the stuff of jokes.

In March, a study published in Psychiatric Services, a journal of the American Psychiatric Association, warned that more young blacks are killing themselves with guns. The study used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Though the risk for suicide among young people is still greatest among young white males, recent CDC studies show that from 1980 through 1995, suicide rates increased most rapidly among young black males. For black males aged 15-19, the rate increased 105 percent. During the same period, the overall suicide rate for all persons of the same age increased only 11 percent.

Though CDC researchers gave no reason for the escalating self-carnage, some suicide prevention experts speculated that the jump in suicides was an ugly by-product of middle-class life. In other words, as more blacks climb the social and economic ladder, they encounter the same pressures and frustrations as their white middle-class counterparts in the chase for better careers, bigger incomes and richer lifestyles.

This explanation is shaky. The CDC did not break down suicides among blacks by income status.

In Chicago, where some mental health professionals report that the suicide rate among young blacks exceeds that of whites, most of those who take their lives are lower-income blacks. They are plagued by chronic problems of drug and alcohol use, high unemployment and prison rates, family breakdown and the absurdly easy access and availability of guns. These problems are compounded by the paucity of mental health centers, treatment facilities and trained professionals in poor neighborhoods.

Then there's the belief among many school counselors and teachers that young black males are inherently violent and crime-prone. They often ignore glaring signs of at-risk behavior, such as uncontrolled rage or aggression, exhibited by many young blacks. Or they don't recognize that this "acting out" behavior frequently masks acute feelings of depression, hopelessness, alienation and low self-esteem. The end result is that many young blacks fail to receive the counseling and treatment that could save their lives.

Another troubling concern that accompanies the rise in black suicides is a refusal by many blacks to accept the fact that their children can and do kill themselves. This stubborn denial of a changing reality was glaringly evident in June 2000, when 17-year-old Raynard Johnson was found hanging from a pecan tree in the front yard of his Kokomo, Miss., home. Johnson's family openly disputed the coroner's ruling that his death was a suicide, claiming that he was murdered for dating a white girl.

Civil rights leaders quickly joined the clamor over his death. Jesse Jackson flatly stated that Johnson's death had the earmarks of a lynching. The NAACP hired a private investigator, and the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that the Klan had long used white fears of black men raping white women to terrorize blacks.

But there was no tangible evidence then and afterwards that Johnson's death was anything other than a suicide, and the suggestion that Johnson was lynched for dating a white girl was absurd to many, even in Mississippi.

If black leaders are loath to admit that young blacks such as Johnson can take their lives, many black parents are even more adamant in denying that their children could be at mortal risk to themselves. They often ignore telltale signs of chronic depression or rage, self-destructive acts or notes in which their children threaten to take their lives. They refuse to seek professional help.

The tight blinders to the suicide crisis could have the same deadly consequence as the persistent refusal of many blacks to admit that HIV/AIDS was a serious threat. Even as the CDC issued report after report warning that blacks accounted for nearly half of the AIDS cases in America, black leaders, community activists and religious leaders stuck their heads in the sand or railed that the disease was a white, gay disease.

Black leaders and parents must face the bitter truth that suicide is not a desperate act reserved solely for pampered, frustrated, alienated white suburban kids. Many black kids are also taking their lives. It's no disgrace to admit that truth.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).
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