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Suicide is a Black Problem, and Checking on Strong Friends Isn’t Enough

todaySeptember 27, 2023 11

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Trigger warning: This article discusses themes of suicide ideation. If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideation, contact the National Suicide Hotline by dialing 988 or the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘HOME’ to 741741.

Society has historically stigmatized conversations about mental health issues. But lately, we’re bombarded with mental health content on social media with everything from wellness affirmations to digital therapy services. With this recent explosion of information and a newfound acceptance for discussing taboo topics, why, then, has the rate of suicide become increasingly worse — especially in the Black community?

A recent report from the CDC noted that the only decline in suicide rates from 2018 to 2021 was among white people. Meanwhile, suicide rates dramatically climbed within the Black community, while only one in three Black adults received needed mental health care. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death for Black people between the ages of 15 and 19 in 2020 and threatens to persist, given the Black community’s complicated relationship with asking for help. In a 2020 national survey asking people how comfortable they felt talking to friends and family about their mental health, only 12% of the people who said yes were Black.

Suicide is Not the Sickness — It’s the Symptom

The issue of mental health stigma is compounded by the reality of being Black in America — where unique challenges like systemic poverty and medical mistrust have contributed to the spike in suicide over the last few years.

Denise Brady, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, spoke with Okayplayer about the Black perceptions of mental health. “We often do not seek help because of our beliefs and upbringing,” Brady said. “Some of it is due to feeling like we must be strong. We also have limited access to quality mental health services. And Black and brown people have been so hurt or traumatized by ‘the system’ that the stigma associated with social services stops us from getting help.”

We cannot divorce our current reality from our history of associating silence with safety in this country, a poignant reminder of why self-advocacy is a collective struggle. “Looking further back, we were never taught to speak up for ourselves,” Brady said. “If we spoke up during slave times, we were met with severe consequences. There are lingering effects of this passed down from generation to generation.”

However, whether we self-advocate for our mental health or suffer in silence, there still remains a relative misunderstanding of what causes suicide. The problem is not sadness but systems of oppression. The sheer weight of survival often makes inner well-being present as a chore.

“We’re focused on trying to eat, paying bills, keeping a roof over our heads,” Brady said. “This is a deeper conversation that needs to be highlighted and discussed more. We have to discuss the systematic racism that perpetuates socioeconomic disparities.” In 2022, the poverty rate spiked after two years of decline, impacting the Black community most significantly. Poverty goes hand in hand with low-quality or non-existent healthcare options and barriers to things like purchasing prescriptions, maintaining a healthy diet, and paying for therapy, all things that lead to better mental health.

The Misconception of Black Joy

From blue-collar workers to celebrities — mental health is no respecter of status. Social media waters down the nuance of life and allows everyone to present as their best self, no matter what’s going on beneath the surface. We only see what people want us to.

When people we know — either personally or from a distance — end their lives, too often, the response is, “They didn’t look unhappy.” With the help of social media, mental health is polarized as abundantly joyful or visibly agonizing.

Perhaps the most pronounced recent example of this was dancer and talk show sidekick Stephen “tWitch” Boss, whose death garnered reactions of shock and disbelief — even from those closest to him. A beacon of elusive Black joy, “No one had any inkling that he was low. He didn’t want people to know,” Allison Holker Boss explained in an interview about her late husband with People. “He just wanted to be everyone’s Superman and protector.”

In recent years, the calls for Black joy have been loud, and rightfully so. In a world where society so sharply focuses on our struggle and trauma, it is necessary to amplify our resilience, resistance, and reclamation. The truth about joy is that it is a daily demonstration of choice — an affirmation that we are more than our struggle and our trauma. However, making that choice does not invalidate our struggle and cannot be a replacement for addressing our mental health.

Parallel to the watered-down version of life we see on social media, there has been a rise in transparency about emotional struggles. From Megan Thee Stallion to Jidenna, more and more of our favorite performers are being loud about putting their mental health first.

The comparison is a stretch; celebrities undoubtedly have more access to mental health resources and support than the average person. But these examples remind us that no one is too successful — or visibly cheerful — to be sad.

Checking On Strong Friends Means Being the Strong Friend

It’s one thing to discuss mental health and an entirely different one to specifically talk about suicide. Even discussing suicide on social media is approached with caution. Many influencers replace the word “suicide” with “unalive” to prevent algorithms from suppressing their content, further stigmatizing the topic. But where is the balance between trigger warnings and alienating the topic entirely?

Joel Leon, a Brooklyn-based writer and poet, has spoken about his experiences with suicide and sits on the board of directors for the suicide advocacy organization To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA). “Recently, there’s been more talk around how conversations about suicide and suicide awareness actually plant the idea of suicide in someone’s head who may not have been thinking of it,” Leon told Okayplayer. “I compare this logic to homophobes who believe that talking about LGBTQ issues in public forums more openly somehow coerces others to be gay, which is undeniably false.”

Leon went on to explain that talking about suicide is actually healing, not exacerbating. “When we talk openly about our own mental health struggles when we talk candidly about self-harm and suicidal ideations, it creates more room for us to be present for our solutions. Sharing what we’ve learned and gone through makes us feel less alone.”

In the vein of talking candidly, the best source of truth when it comes to how we can support people who are experiencing the societal symptoms of suicide is asking them what they need. A commonly repeated trope is the advice to check on “strong friends,” the ones who don’t talk about their feelings or overall mental health. But for some living with suicide ideation, they say support is much more nuanced. Two Black women, Mikki Veal and Keeonna Harris spoke to their own experiences with suicidal ideation.

“Most of the time, when I feel suicidal ideation, I don’t tell anyone. I keep the feeling to myself, so I probably won’t tell you even if you check in on me,” said Veal, a 36-year-old creative consultant.

“I don’t bring my friends into it when I’m in that space because I know I’m the only one who can pull me out. So you can and should check on all your friends consistently and let them know you’re there. However, ‘checking in’ won’t always thwart plans of ending one’s life because it’s ultimately a very personal decision.”

When it comes to checking in, Brady adds, “Check on our strong friends AND the friend who’s going through something. Vulnerability is a layer we don’t discuss enough in friendships. Do more friend check-ins on the actual friendship. Ask those vulnerable questions that foster growth. ‘Do you feel safe with me?’, ‘What more do you need from me as a friend?’ Can you hold space for a friend? As a friend, do I feel like you can hold space for me? If I feel like you are a safe space, I might open up to you. Lean in and listen, make them feel heard instead of having them feel like a burden.”

“The biggest misconception is suicidal ideation and depression as a form of weakness. That weakness/strength binary also comes with some measure of toxic positivity,” said Harris, a 43-year-old writer and prison abolitionist. “I was taught to handle trials and tribulations through church and to look to the afterlife rather than focusing on how to make sense of the life I’m living right now.”

Since every bout with suicidal thoughts varies from person to person, Mikki said what’s been most helpful for her is the option to work through her feelings without pressure. “I’ve found that many people usually don’t know what they need. I’m someone who honestly hates the check-ins. I don’t like to be reminded of what I’m feeling. I need to be alone and know I can reach out when ready.”

The desire to sweep sadness and despair under the rug or pray it away comes from a good place. For many, it’s hard not to feel responsible when our loved ones feel hopeless, but “The best thing people can do is listen. And to not make the [suicidal] ideations or attempts about themselves,” Leon said. He went on to say that responses like, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me,” can have an adverse effect. “It’s easy to feel guilt about someone you love experiencing a kind of pain you may know nothing about. You can feel helpless. But your job as [a friend] is to be present.”

Brady says that several clients who came to talk therapy arrived ready to end their lives and simply needed a safe space to express how they felt without the worry of being judged or labeled and credits the toxic mantra, ‘what happens in the house stays in the house.’.

“I believe people hold back what they are going through even from the closest of friends and family. Some of it is their own stuff they have to work through from childhood and the conditioning we had of letting people into ‘our business,’” said Brady. “ It’s a multifaceted conversation, and people must also challenge themselves to step out of their comfort zones. Sometimes, sadness becomes a comfort zone. Asking for help is uncomfortable. But that’s not only where growing happens, [it’s] where healing happens.”

If someone you know is in emotional pain and may be in danger of taking their lift, The National Institute of Mental Health offers five basic steps to take:

    1. ASK: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
    2. KEEP THEM SAFE: Reducing a suicidal person’s access to highly lethal items or places is an important part of suicide prevention.
    3. BE THERE: Listen carefully and learn what the individual is thinking and feeling.
    4. HELP THEM CONNECT: Save the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline number (call or text 988) and the Crisis Text Line number (741741) in your phone so they’re there if you need them. You can also help make a connection with a trusted individual like a family member, friend, spiritual advisor, or mental health professional.
    5. STAY CONNECTED: Staying in touch after a crisis or after being discharged from care can make a difference.

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