Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine is one of my favorite novels, authored by the late Bebe Moore Campbell. While you may be aware that July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, you may be less familiar with the fact that she was one of the Black women behind this observance. Bebe Moore Campbell was not only an author, but was also the co-founder of the Urban Los Angeles chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She and her friend Linda Wharton-Boyd advocated tirelessly for mental health education and destigmatization of treatment in diverse communities. Their advocacy work ultimately led the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008 to announce July as Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Bebe has left behind a powerful legacy that is needed now more than ever, particularly with recent celebrity suicides and ongoing suicides committed by people of color that are apparently connected to mental health issues.
Death is a most unwelcome visitor to our lives. It is difficult enough to encounter when we watch it take the life of someone full of years whose health has been in decline for some time. It is overwhelmingly painful when it suddenly and unexpectedly claims someone in the prime of his/her life. Such is often the case with suicide, which almost always leaves us with many unanswered questions. Since suicide is a permanent “solution” to a temporary problem, we often wonder what problem seemed so devastating at the time. “Could we have done anything to prevent it?” “Who could be next?” While even the most accurate answers to our questions will not bring the loved one back, it is important to raise our awareness about suicide so that we might prevent another person, young or old, from walking down this dangerous and heartbreaking path.
Our culture is full of misperceptions about mental health in general, and suicide in particular. We deny that young people take their lives, when suicide is actually the fourth leading cause of death in youth ages 10 to 14, and the third leading cause of death in older adolescents. In fact, adolescents ages 15 to 19 are at the greatest risk for suicide. While males are four times more likely than females to commit (or “complete”) suicide, females are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than males. (One reason for males’ higher rate of completion is that males are more likely to use more lethal means, such as guns.)
Furthermore, we somehow think that African Americans are immune to suicide. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since 1986, the national rate of suicide among African American males has increased by more than 50%. Recent data available from the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics reveal that 15 African-Americans (9 males and 6 females) committed suicide in Durham and Wake Counties in 2016. Based on reporting biases, these figures are likely underestimates. Prominent psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint and his co-author Amy Alexander suggest in their book Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African Americans (2001) that substance abuse and gang involvement are themselves types of self-destructive behavior similar to suicide. For example, those who place themselves in precarious situations with law enforcement officials and approach the point of no return have been said to have committed “suicide by cop.” A similar phenomenon may occur among many “homicide” victims, especially where so-called “black-on-black” crime is concerned. Whether taking a broad or narrow view of self-destructive behaviors, we can no longer laugh with comedians who claim that suicide is “just a white thing.”
Persons at risk for suicide are often struggling with depression, family disruption, physical or sexual abuse, and/or substance use or abuse. Because we tend to place a stigma on getting help when we need it, we place an incredible amount of pressure on ourselves and our families. Our young people are even more vulnerable because they often lack the life experience and the skills to cope with seemingly overwhelming circumstances. Sometimes we are afraid to get help because no one else in the family has gotten help. Still, someone has to break the cycle of secrets and pain. The Bible gives examples of at least six suicides, yet there is no explicit condemnation in the Bible of suicide as an unforgiveable sin. Rather than being places for condemning people who are struggling, then, faith communities can be the very places that free people to confidentially share their struggles. Is your church a place of refuge for persons considering suicide? Laypersons and church leaders alike can learn more about creating safe havens in their churches by contacting the National Organization for People of Color against Suicide (NOPCAS) at www.nopcas.org. If you are considering suicide, please don’t hesitate to call 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-273-TALK. You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741741. In Durham, you can also reach out for confidential care and support by contacting Alliance Behavioral Healthcare at 800-510-9132.
À Votre Santé (“To Your Health”),
Tonya D. Armstrong, Ph.D., M.T.S.
Licensed Psychologist, Author, Singer/Songwriter, Minister, Producer, Entrepreneur