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VIEWS The stigma of Black suicide is killing us
by Rev. Irene Monroe
2014-08-20

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When the first news reports of Robin Williams' death hit the media, few questioned the report that the country's most beloved comedian 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 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 four and a half 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. While health care disparities undoubtedly contributing to the problem, so, too, the dearth of mental health professional—therapists, counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists. According to the 2010 data from the American Association of Suicidology, "Just 4 percent of the nation's psychiatrists, 3 percent of the psychologists and 7 percent of social workers are Black."

Anti-gay bullying

LGBTQ African-Americans residing in Black communities are frequently the subjects of bullying, which often times lead to their death by suicide or gang violence.

In 2009, Sirdeaner Walker found her 11-year-old son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, hanging by an extension cord on the second floor of their home after he endured endless anti-gay taunts by schoolmates, although Carl never identified as gay.

When 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 about the incident said Carl's gender expression was queer, implying that there existed sufficient rationale to taunt him.

In 2010, Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick signed landmark anti-bullying legislation, cementing the state's commitment to changing the culture of bullying in schools.

Religion

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 percent of African American women revealed that" 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." And because suicide is such a taboo subject and kept on the "down low" in the community very little research among African American religion scholars and theologians have probed into just how conservative Christianity not only harms our LGBTQ 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.

"Cop-assisted suicide"

Most Black males in the United States 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 some, contribute to Black male suicide.

"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 that 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 2009-10, when 1,596 LBT women 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 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.


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