When the first news reports of Robin Williams’ death hit the media, few questioned the report that one of the world’s most beloved comedians had committed suicide.
This reaction stands in stark contrast to the reaction to the 2012 news of the death of Soul Train creator Don Cornelius. Cornelius was found dead in his home after committing suicide with a firearm. Many African Americans believed Cornelius must have been murdered by an intruder, even after the official report.
Although one death involved a firearm, and distrust of the US government runs deep in our communities of color, the myth that ‘black folks don’t get depressed, we get the blues’ persisted.
And, unfortunately, an opportunity to talk about suicide in the African diasporic communities was missed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that black suicide is not only on the rise, but that suicide claims at least one African American every 4.5 hours.
And black males have a higher suicide rate than their counterparts.
I can identify at least five factors contributing to suicide in communities of African descent which, for the most part, go unaddressed: Untreated mental illness, homophobic bullying, religion, ‘cop-assisted suicide’, and the ‘strong black woman syndrome’.
Untreated mental illness
The leading cause of suicide in African diasporic communities are not only the cultural stigma about mental illness, but also the barriers to mental health treatment.
Health care disparities undoubtedly contribute to the problem. So, too, does the dearth of mental health professional – therapists, counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists. According to the 2010 data from the American Association of Suicidology ‘just 4% of the nation’s psychiatrists, 3% of the psychologists and 7% of social workers, are black.’
LGBTI African Americans residing in black communities are frequently the subjects of bullying, which can lead to their death by suicide or gang violence.
In 2009 Ms Walker found her son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, hanging by an extension cord on the second floor of their home after he endured endless anti-gay and homophobic taunts by schoolmates, although Carl never identified as gay.
I went to speak that year at the Anti-Bullying Community Forum and Vigil in reference to Carl’s death. Some kids in the black community of Springfield I spoke with responded that Carl’s gender expression was queer, implying that was sufficient reason to taunt him.
In 2010, Governor Patrick signed landmark anti-bullying legislation, cementing the state’s commitment to changing the culture of bullying in schools, and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders was involved in the drafting and legislative process from beginning to end.
Not surprisingly sisters of African descent are one of the largest religious demographic groups. A 2012 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey disclosed that 74% of African American women revealed ‘living a religious life’ was very important to us.
But our very religious life can also contribute to a cult suicide as Sikivu Hutchinson points out in her article Jonestown Massacre: How Religion Kills Black Women.
Jonestown was the informal name for religious organization the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project where in November 1978 over 900 people died in a shocking mass murder by mass suicide.
But suicide is such a taboo subject and kept on the ‘down low’ in the community. As a result, very little research among African American religion scholars and theologians has probed how conservative Christianity not only harms our LGBTI brothers and sisters but also our grandmothers, mothers, and sisters.
‘About 75% of Peoples Temple members were African American, 20% were white and 5% were Asian, Latino and Native American,’ writes Hutchinson.
‘The majority of its black members were women, while its core leadership was predominantly white. As per the cultural cliché, black women like (sole Jonestown survivor Hyacinth) Thrash were “the backbone” of People’s Temple, the primary victims of Jonestown, and the population with the deepest investment in the philosophy, ethos and mission of the church.’
Most black males in America feel they reside in a police state. The hopelessness it engenders among this demographic group has created a cop-assisted suicide culture.
And, sadly, it’s a suicide method very common among African American urban young males. It’s when a young brother deliberately engages in a life-threatening unlawful act that provokes a cop to shoot to the point of killing.
Social stressors such as police profiling, constant images of unarmed black males being shot by police, high unemployment, incarceration and dropout rates, and family and community violence, to name enough, contribute to black male suicide.
‘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?’ Poussaint asked in a recent interview on National Public Radio. ‘There is such a thing as what we call victim-precipitated homicide, which is suicide. The most classic example would be suicide by cop.’
‘Strong black woman syndrome’
In July 2010 a groundbreaking study titled Black Lesbians Matter examined the unique experiences, perspectives, and priorities of black LBT communities. And sadly little was known about it.
The report revealed LBT women of African descent are among the most vulnerable in our society and need advocacy in the areas of financial security, healthcare, access to education, and marriage equality.
The study is akin to a census conducted over several months in 2009 to 2010 where 1,596 LBT women from regional, statewide, and local organizations in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Denver, and also through an on-line survey participated.
The study focused on five key areas: health, family/parenting, identity, aging, and invisibility. One key finding of the survey revealed there is a pattern of higher suicide rates among us. Scholars have primarily associated these higher suicide rates with one’s inability to deal with ‘coming-out’ to their faith communities.
When news hit that the lovely 22-year-old Karyn Washington, creator of the uplifting and empowering online site, For Brown Girls committed suicide even Ebony Magazine had to ask: ‘Is “Strong Black Womanhood” Killing Our Sisters?’
With the black community focusing primarily on the ‘endangered black male’ and the dominant culture also not seeing, and hearing African-American voices on this issue, unfortunately, our humanity is distorted and made invisible through a prism of racist and sexist stereotypes. And, so too is our suffering.
It time to acknowledge that the stigma of suicide is killing us.