When news broke in late January that Ian Alexander Jr., the son of award-winning actress and director Regina King, had died by suicide, it quickly ricocheted across social media. Sympathetic posts filled Black Twitter and beyond as our collective hearts went out to the beloved star and her family.
The shock of the news stemmed in part from learning that the young son of a celebrity who presumably had it all had taken his own life. But the surprise surely also came from the belief some might hold that while Black people may face many threats to our lives daily — from police brutality to community violence — suicide isn’t one of them.
In fact, suicide rates have been on the rise in our community, particularly among young people. In 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Blacks or African Americans ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent research shows that the suicide rate of Black males ages 15 to 24 rose by 47 percent between 2013 and 2019; the rate rose by 59 percent for Black females of the same age.
I think that some of us are so grieved by the stories of high-profile people who have died by suicide, because in our minds we think, If I had more money, I would be happier. But we’re seeing people who have the money, the fame, the power, [and] they’re experiencing the same sadness, despair, depression, hopelessness that we are.
King’s son wasn’t the only recent loss by suicide that rocked the Black community. Kevin Ward, the mayor of Hyattsville, Maryland, also took his own life in January, followed by former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, who died by suicide during the same month. In May, Arlana Miller, a 19-year-old freshman and a cheerleader at Southern University and A&M College in Louisiana, took her own life after posting an alarming message on Instagram.
“I think that some of us are so grieved by the stories of high-profile people who have died by suicide, because in our minds we think, If I had more money, I would be happier,” says Kobe Campbell, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and founder and lead therapist at The Healing Circle in Charlotte, North Carolina. “But we’re seeing people who have the money, the fame, the power, [and] they’re experiencing the same sadness, despair, depression, hopelessness that we are.”
What’s going on, and what can we do to protect ourselves and those we love from the worst effects of depression, including self-harm? July is BIPOC Mental Health Month. Let’s not waste a moment in finding out, finding our voices and spreading awareness.
Sources and Symptoms
Our vulnerability to depression and suicide may be caused by a number of factors, including poverty, racial discrimination and lack of access to mental health care. Add to those challenges the long-term pandemic and related economic insecurities that have been with us for more than two years. “I think a lot of people are just [feeling] hopeless because they’re overwhelmed,” Campbell notes.
The repeated exposure through the news and social media to police violence against unarmed Black people also undermines our well-being.
The stigma society applies to the concept of mental illness, and some people’s resulting reluctance to seek professional help, may also heighten the risk of suicide among Black people. Among our youth, mental health struggles may be expressed differently and go unrecognized, says Michael Lindsey, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.P.H., the principal investigator of a study on Black youth and depression. Dr. Lindsey, who was until recently the executive director of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research and who has been appointed dean of the NYU Silver School of Social Work, says, “We have observed that mental health symptoms are more likely to be overlooked in Black children and teens. They may express their depression symptoms differently than white youth, more often through externalizing behaviors such as irritability or conduct problems.”
Among Black adults, depression and suicidal thoughts might show up as extreme fatigue, hopelessness, even resignation. “For my clients who have struggled with suicidal ideation, it’s almost always words like ‘I’m so tired’ or ‘If I don’t wake up in the morning, I’ll be okay with that,’’’ says Campbell.
Yet we soldier on. Black people who are stressed and have depression continue to hold jobs or go to school, serve in church and show up for our kids’ sports games despite our suffering because we have to provide for others.
8 Ways to Enhance Mental Wellness
Check in with each other. Many African Americans were raised to be tough — superwomen and supermen — in a hostile world. But we all need support, especially our youth. “We may think that we need to teach them mental toughness, but we must also teach them that we can provide them with a safe space to express their emotions and admit when they are vulnerable,” Dr. Lindsey says.
Pay attention to changes in behavior or mood. Don’t ignore extreme mood swings or changes in a loved one’s behavior, especially if they’ve experienced loss of someone close to them or loss of a job. Listen for expressions of thoughts of self-harm or death, or feelings of hopelessness or being a burden to others. If you suspect substance abuse, take action to get help.
Address physical health problems. Sadness and depression may be expressed through physical ailments, especially among young Black people. “They may complain of stomachaches or headaches, when the problem is actually emotional,” Dr. Lindsey says. Seek medical attention if problems persist, but be open to a psychological cause.
Empathize. With a depressed friend or loved one, avoid glossing over problems by saying things like “God gives the biggest battles to his strongest soldiers” or “Everything works out for a reason,” which could worsen a person’s sense of isolation. Instead, listen, acknowledge and try words like “I hear your pain.”
Stay connected. The pandemic robbed the Black community of one of our strengths: our sense of community, Campbell says. Seeing friends, joining a community of faith, even logging on to Black Twitter can help restore our sense of connectedness and hope.
Adopt positive mental health habits. Journaling, getting outside daily, exercising and eating well can all support mental health and well-being. “Prayer and meditation positively affect our brain health,” Campbell says. “I also think that faith allows people to hold on to hope that’s not theirs until they develop their own.”
Shed the shame of seeking professional help. To find support for a child or an adolescent who is struggling, get help from a school counselor or school social worker. For Blacks of all ages, seek out Black therapists and consider group therapy as an option. “I believe that African Americans and Black people should seek mental health services because they deserve to experience joy and freedom,” Campbell notes.
Use mental health resources. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with someone who can help in the moment (as of July 16, simply dial 988), or reach out to The Steve Fund, which focuses on the needs of youth of color, online or by texting STEVE to 741741.