By Liz Courquet-Lesaulnier | Word In Black
(WIB) – On July 18, my brother Chris would have turned 59. But for him, there’s no blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, hugging his children and grandchildren, or sharing a selfie on Instagram of him styling in his latest whip.
He died by suicide in January 2006 at the age of 41.
The starkness of that statement may shock some folks. But given that July is Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, there’s no time like the present to step away from stigma and silence.
Along with being an author and journalist, Moore was the co-founder of NAMI Urban LA, the Los Angeles chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI acknowledges that it’s uncomfortable and frightening to talk about mental health and suicide, but doing so enables people to get help and “avoid devastating consequences.”
According to NAMI, 21.4% of Black folks — roughly 1 in 5 — experience mental illness annually. But, only 39.4% of Black people who experience mental illness get treated for it.
A lack of health insurance — and the unaffordability of out-of-pocket care — is certainly a part of this, as is a lack of culturally competent therapists or living in a healthcare desert. And, ahem, therapists are less likely to call back a person with a Black-sounding name than a white one.
There’s also the reality that, in a survey, NAMI California found that only 12.5% of Black folks said they’re comfortable talking to close friends, family, and community members about their or a loved one’s mental health.
That pressure to keep quiet about mental health challenges is the result of stigma. Research shows that “63% of Black people believe that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness,” according to NAMI California.
In 2005, the year before my brother died, Bebe Moore Campbell called for “a national campaign to destigmatize mental illness, especially one targeted toward African Americans.”
With that in mind, tiptoeing around our need for mental health care — and the need to address the high rates of suicide that are devastating the Black community — won’t help our loved ones get the care and support they need.
A Snapshot of the Black Suicide Crisis
In April, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics revealed that between 2016 and 2020, Black folks had the highest rate of visits to an emergency room due to suicidal ideation — meaning our loved ones had been thinking about, considering, or planning suicide.
CDC data also reveals that between 2018-2021, suicide rates jumped 36.6% for Black youth aged 10–24 years. For Black folks aged 25–44 years, there was a 22.9% increase.
Keep in mind these statistics aren’t just numbers. These are people. Heartbreakingly, there’s more.
A report released in February from The Trevor Project found that in 2022, 25% of Black transgender and nonbinary young people reported a suicide attempt in the past year.
In addition, in 2018, the most recent year of federal data, suicide was the fourth leading cause of death for Black men aged 44 and under. In 2020, it was the top cause of death for Black girls aged 12-14
No demographic of Black folks goes unscathed.
What’s Causing the Uptick?
My slightly sarcastic response? Because racism.
The NAMI California website explains that “being treated or perceived as ‘less than’ because of the color of your skin can be stressful and even traumatizing. Additionally, members of the Black community face structural challenges accessing the care and treatment they need.”
The National Institutes of Health says that “stressful life events (such as the loss of a loved one, legal troubles, or financial difficulties) and interpersonal stressors (such as shame, harassment, bullying, discrimination, or relationship troubles) may contribute to suicide risk.”
I suppose being incarcerated qualifies as a “stressful life event” because being behind bars takes a significant mental health toll on folks who are or have been locked up.
My brother had struggled with severe mental health issues and addiction since his teen years, which led — as is the case for too many Black folks — to incarceration. Twenty-five years in and out of various prisons for petty crimes — crimes committed to get money for drugs.
A study led by University of Michigan researchers found that “African-American men who have spent time behind bars show worse mental health conditions compared with men of the same race with no history of incarceration.” The researchers found that “psychological costs of incarceration do not end when the individual is released.”
My brother was paroled from prison a few months before his death. Having to check the box on a job application saying he had a criminal record meant he could only get a job at a meat packing plant.
Holding on to a job in the Detroit area — a part of the nation that was feeling the economic downturn before the Great Recession hit the rest of us — wasn’t easy for him. He got laid off from the meat packing plant, and after that, he got laid off from a poultry slaughtering plant. He was let go right before Christmas 2005. Less than a month later, in January 2006, our family changed forever.
Free or Low-Cost Help Is Available
This doesn’t have to be the fate of our loved ones. As NAMI puts it: “Suicidal thoughts are a symptom, just like any other — they can be treated, and they can improve over time.”
What gives me hope is there are so many resources now that didn’t exist in 2006 — particularly for Black men — when my brother was struggling.
First, if you are having thoughts of suicide:
- Call 911.
- Call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for 24/7 free and confidential support.
- Text the Crisis Text Line, which provides free, 24/7, confidential support through text messages to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
NAMI’s website is packed full of free resources — including what is probably the most comprehensive free help directory out there regarding mental health. Connecting with a NAMI chapter and getting support and assistance for yourself or a loved one is also completely free.
- You can call NAMI Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET at 800-950-NAMI (6264).
- Text them at 62640.
- Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find a therapist in your area on psychologytoday.com. There are also Black-centered directories like Therapy For Black Girls, Therapy For Black Men, Open Path, and Melanin and Mental Health that can help, as well as Black mental health professionals destigmatizing mental illness on social media and sharing tips and free resources.
All these resources remind me of this truth: The surest way to combat this crisis is through open dialogue within the Black community. We can create an environment where it’s OK to seek help. As NAMI puts it, “Let’s break down stigma so no one struggles in silence.”