By Mental Health Educator Glenn Proctor
NOTE: A bit of mental health literacy from the National Council for Behavioral Health and Mental Health America: The first sentence of this column is written for the sake of history. Never say ‘commit’ suicide; instead say someone took their life by suicide or died by suicide. Commit implies a sin or a crime. Suicide is neither a sin nor a crime. It is a mental disorder, often undetected, untreated, sometimes temporary, with depression, anxiety, isolation and substance abuse causing suicide ideations and negative thoughts about one’s life.
Growing up, I remember hearing, “Black folks don’t commit suicide.”
BULLETIN! We did then and we do now.
We need to talk about it. Now! Not only because this is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and we are in National Suicide Prevention Week – September 10-16 – but because suicide is a growing American epidemic. We, as Black Americans, are not immune.
The statistics, reported by federal and state agencies and mental health networks, are staggering. Yet, some numbers are lagging by several years and experts believe that suicide, especially in Black and brown communities, is underreported.
Between 2011 to 2022, nearly 540,000 Americans died by suicide. The highest number of annual suicide deaths – 49,369 – were recorded in 2022, according to KFF, an independent health policy research organization. That came after modest declines in 2019 and 2020 but increased in 2021 and last year. The rate of suicide deaths has increased 37 percent since 1999.
Where are Black folks in those numbers? From 2011 to 2021, rates of Black suicide increased 58 percent. Most affected in the last three years of that study were Black youth and young adults.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides among young Black people, aged 10 to 24, increased 36 percent from 2018 to 2021, making it the second leading cause of death in Black children, 10-14, and the third leading cause among Black adolescents, ages 15-19.
Recent numbers show that Black children under age 13 are twice as likely to die from suicide as their white counterparts. Black youths are at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles than peers of other races. The CDC reports that suicide is increasing at a faster rate – 36 – percent – for Black youths than for any other racial or ethnic group.
During that same three-year research period – 2018 to 2021 – there was a five percent increase in suicide deaths for all individuals, ages 25 to 44. Black Americans accounted for 22.9 percent of that increase.
Paramount among the risk factors for youth suicide are bullying, bullying others, trauma, LBGTQ and racial discrimination and access to firearms. Another factor is health care disparities since Black youth often do not receive treatment for depression or receive treatment after a suicide attempt.
Suicide numbers among Black adults in urban areas are climbing. One example is Cook County, where Chicago is located, Black men accounted for 80 percent of the suicides so far this year.
Research by the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry says Black adults are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health issues, including depressive disorder or anxiety disorder, which could lead to suicide. Black men take their lives at 3-4 times the rate as Black women.
Facing the prospect of being a victim of the justice system – or the fear of being stopped by police or accused of something by a “Karen” – is a common fear of most Black men, including those who are famous, considered middle class or well-to-do.
In 2018, Virginia ranked 35th in the U.S. for suicide deaths, though there was increase of 25 percent in suicide deaths from 2018 to 2019, with a slight decrease in 2019 to 1,045, according to state Department of Health statistics. One in five Virginia suicide deaths in 2018 served in the military.
What do these statistics mean to Black America? Or all of America? A clarion call for help, to listen and support those who are suffering. The immediate goal is to erase the stigma. Talking about suicide, learning about suicide may save lives.
One in four adults – 18 or older – will experience a mental disorder in a given year. One in five youth – 13 to 18 – live with or will experience a serious mental illness during their lifetime, the CDC says.
My mantra: If you feel something (as an individual), say something. If you hear or say something (from others), say something and do something.”
The language about suicide has changed over the years, but society has a long way to go. We must continue to listen and learn the truth about mental illness and use the right words to talk about suicide.
“Just get over it and move on” is not a suitable response to anyone in a mental health crisis or having suicide ideations. What they are feeling may be more than ‘a bad day.’ Having a macho attitude, as many men do, including a large majority of Black men, about mental illness or suicide only buries the situation.
Support in the form of non-judgmental listening is a good first step. So is taking a suicide prevention or mental health first aid course to understand signs and symptoms and knowing what to say. The courses are free in most areas.
Also, know that suicide is not attached to color, class, social status or reputation.
We remember notables who died by suicide. Cheslie Kryst, the former Miss USA, activist attorney and TV personality who jumped to her death in New York; the great Phyllis Hyman; Mr. Soul Train Don Cornelius; NFL player Charles Johnson; dancer and DJ Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss, and Ian King, son of acclaimed actress Regina King.
As a peer support professional – not a clinician – with lived experience and years of evidence-based training as a suicide prevention and mental health first aid instructor for Mental Health America and grief support educator with dozens of classes taught nationally, my mission is to teach and help lessen the stigma, especially among Black Americans and military veterans. It’s a long way from my journalism career.
For three years, I’ve been a role-play instructor with Mecklenburg County Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training program – de-escalation – for Charlotte police, regional law enforcement for first responders. Twice, I helped CIT officers defuse on-scene situations with veterans in distress.
As a Vietnam veteran, I have survivors’ remorse, knowing my name is not on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. Coping with those thoughts remain a struggle, even to this day.
I saw suicide up close decades ago, having heard the shot as my grandfather took his life in an adjacent room, lost Marine “brothers” to suicide and had suicide ideations during years of drinking binges. I have written about suicide as a journalist, author and mental health educator.
So, what can any of us do as Black Americans to lessen the stigma of mental illness suicide?
We must speak up, step up – at home, at work, in college or school, in our social circles. One of the slogans used by Mental Health America suicide prevention educators is “we can all save a life.” It’s an imperative for us all.
Executive and Life Coach Glenn Proctor is certified as QPR Suicide Prevention Instructor and Youth and Adult Mental Health First Aid Instructor and trained as a Grief Support Specialist and Peer Support Specialist. Proctor Is a continual support for mothers in Kentucky and Minnesota (longtime journalism mentees) who lost college-age sons to suicide and a North Carolina mother whose six-year old tried twice to end his life. He coaches from lived experience – alcoholic, foster care, single parent, cancer survivor and Agent Orange victim. He retired as executive editor and vice president of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.