By Alexa Spencer | Word In Black

(WIB) – There’s been an alarming rise in the number of Black youth dying by suicide in the last few years. National data from 2018 revealed that Black children ages 5-11 were taking their lives at higher rates than others. 

Dr. Rheeda Walker — a licensed clinical psychologist who researches suicide prevention among ethnic minorities — says she recognized we were in a “Black mental health crisis” when she saw those numbers. She decided to “ring the alarm” and let the world know what was happening.

In her book “The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health,” Walker helps readers understand the crisis, “navigate an unequal system, learn tools for emotional wellness, and get the help you deserve.”

During a recent sit-down with Word In Black, Walker shared more about today’s mental health needs in the Black community and ways to cope.

WORD IN BLACK: Dr. Walker, people of all ages and ethnicities are experiencing mental health crises in the U.S. right now. But what have you found to be unique about Black people’s mental health struggle? 

DR. RHEEDA WALKER: We are uncomfortable with anything that’s called mental health because we associate mental health with what it means to be “crazy” or to be “weak.” And that’s not to say that that’s not true in other communities. It’s just that we kind of carry it a little bit further and a little bit longer than we need to. 

And so we’re more likely to get help in the emergency department or emergency room, rather than engage in preventative care. And things don’t have to get that bad if we are willing to just get help sooner. But, you know, I get it. 

The other part is just us being a really incredibly resilient people — which is a good thing. Like it’s gotten us this far, but that resilience runs out. And I think it runs out for us more so than for others because of the generations of resilience.

WIB: Speaking to our resilience as a people who’ve had to live and work under stressful conditions, can you talk about the John Henryism theory coined by Dr. Sherman Jones and how it shows up in the Black community today?

Credit: Dr. Rheeda Walker

RW: John Henryism speaks to the determination in which we basically work ourselves to death in order to demonstrate that we’re not lazy.

So we’re overcoming stereotypes and killing ourselves in the meantime. So, the doctor might say, you’ve got hypertension, high blood pressure. You’ve got diabetes. You’ve got to slow down. You’ve got to release some of this stress. And a lot of that stress is associated with depression and with anxiety. But instead of calming down, like, “OK, let me just go sit down somewhere,” we persist and work ourselves to death. 

WIB: For people who know someone who’s in a mental health crisis, what is one thing they can do to support the person in need?

RW: Take folks some food. We stopped doing that. When people are struggling, the last thing they’re trying to do is eat. But if you take them some good food, that shows that you’re meeting them where you are, that you care about them, that you’re doing the best you can. And that’s going to give folks a little bit of wind under their sails to at least get them out of that point of crisis.

Because when people are in crisis, they can’t problem solve. And that’s what happens with suicide. They’re overwhelmed. They don’t have any solutions. And they think the only way out is to take their own life, because they can’t problem solve when they’re in crisis. So we want to keep people out of crisis by being present and supporting them as best we can.

WIB: You’ve mentioned that your book is a resource for different types of people — people who are experiencing mental illness and people who are supporting loved ones with mental illness. What can both groups expect to receive from it?

RW:  I think in both cases, it gives folks some language. People will say: “I thought I was just losing my mind.” They really just thought that there was something that only they were experiencing that no one had any understanding or exposure to. And the book just gave them the words to be able to say like, “oh my goodness, this is what I’m experiencing. It’s unfortunate, but it seems like it’s normal.”

And a lot of folks are going through this. And I’ve had people say to me, “why are you in my head?” And I’m like, “because you’re not the only one.” We share an experience that we typically don’t have the language to be able to characterize.