Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Black suicides: tragic, but not epidemic

Is it just me, or is suicide in the news a lot lately?

In August, there was the suicide of Lee Thompson Young, the actor who first came to fame as the child star of "The Famous Jett Jackson." In response, Ebony magazine featured a piece by psychologist Donald E. Grant, Jr., "BLACK SUICIDE: When Prayer Is Not Enough," calling for Black Americans to acknowledge the reality of mental illness among us.

On November 11, the title of Dr. Grant's article was underscored by the suicide of a pastor in Macon, Georgia, the Rev. Teddy Parker, Jr. 

A week later, Merrick McKoy, of Westminster, Colorado, broke into his ex-girlfriend's apartment and shot their 22-month-old daughter and himself - but only after taking a picture of himself and the toddler and posting it on Facebook.

His last status read, "Don’t judge me had no choice."

By this time, I was remembering the suicides of Don Cornelius, and of Jovan Belcher. And starting to wonder if Black America was in the midst of some major cultural shift. You see, in my youth, it seemed to be a given that suicide was for white people - that it was most commonly an outworking of the misery evoked by having wealth but not having God. And since black people had God, but didn't have wealth, we were, you know, safe.

Yeah, that's simplistic. But that was then. This is now. And now, in December, 2013, the Rev. Ed Montgomery, pastor of a church in Hazel Crest, Illinois, shot himself to death in front of his son.

What in the world is going on?

Better reporting, maybe... While it feels like suicide is becoming more common lately among Black people, especially Black men, the data suggest otherwise. If there was a time when time when Black people didn't commit suicide at all, it was before 1992. But between 1992 and 2007, an "African American Suicide Fact Sheet" from the American Association of Suicidology shows a long-term decline in suicides among black Americans, while a more recent chart from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center shows black suicides remaining virtually flat between 2001 and 2010.

And while the constructs of my youth were simplistic, the AAS chart does show that suicide rates among black Americans have remained significantly lower than among whites.

But there is a troubling wrinkle in all this: suicides among the young. According to the AAS, suicide was the third leading cause of death among African-American youth ages 10-19 in 2007. The SPRC report named it as the third leading cause of death among blacks aged 15-24.

What contributes to suicide among the young? It seems that for everyone, the biggest risk factors are obvious ones like prior suicide attempts, alcohol and drug abuse, mood and anxiety disorders and access to lethal means. For black youth, the SPRC says that additional risk factors include parental conflict, perceived racism and discrimination, and the lack of mental health services access and use.

Conversely, "protective factors" include effective mental health care; connectedness to individuals, family, community, and social institutions; problem-solving skills; and contacts with caregivers. "Orthodox religious beliefs and personal devotion" and "Participation in organized religious practices, such as church attendance" were also cited.

I came to this topic in a state of agitation, based on the news of the past few months. But while suicide is always tragic, looking over the data leaves me feeling better about Black folk in America in that regard. We're doing better than might be expected.

Just imagine how much better we could do when we remove the stigma around mental illness. If we do that, and strengthen our young people's sense of community, their problem-solving skills and their faith...I'll go ahead and say it: we could set the example for developing a culture that affirms the goodness and value of life itself, no matter what.
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