The recent death of Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss, who ended his life in December 2022, drew attention to the alarming reality that, once considered extremely rare, suicide in the Black community is rising. Suicidal ideation – thoughts of taking one’s own life – and attempts, are becoming even more common.
Researchers are sounding the alarm about the number of young Black men who are dying by suicide. A report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that although the overall rate of suicide in the United States decreased by 3% in 2020 (the latest year stats are available), the rate of suicide actually increased among many men of color, including Black men, who according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, have a death rate from suicide three times greater than for Black women.
“Unfortunately, Black men often suffer in silence,” said therapist Nettie Jones, MS, LPC. “They don’t seek the help that sometimes women will reach out to get. We’ll call our girlfriends, let them know that things are not okay. But unfortunately Black men tend not to do that. They hold things in, they self-medicate, they are workaholics. The kind of do stuff that’s not very healthy.”
Jones said now, more than ever is the opportunity to have discussions around Black men and suicide.
“I am hopeful that this will raise awareness for African American men that they too suffer from depression or times where they really feel low. Hopefully this will start a dialogue, a kitchen conversation that we feel comfortable talking about in our communities,” Jones added.
While rates of suicide and anxiety have risen sharply during the pandemic, a recent study from the journal JAMA finds that suicide attempts have been rising at an alarming rate long before COVID-19.
The study found that Black males had the highest increase in suicide attempts compared to any other race in the group, for example, increasing nearly 80%.
When Cheryl Jackson read the news of musician Ian Alexander Jr.’s death, her heart sank. Not just because she was a big fan of his mother, actress Regina King, but because she had also suffered a similar loss.
“My son was 25 when he took his life. His father and I had no idea he was struggling mentally. And to this day, we have no idea what led him to do something so drastic. He had a new job. He had a girlfriend. As far as we could tell, everything was fine.”
Had it not been for a note he left, she would’ve believed it was foul play.
“He just asked us not to hate him and that he was just tired of the day-to-day struggle. I must’ve screamed at that note for days, ‘what struggle???’ We later learned he had been having bouts of depression, but never told anyone except his best friend,” Jackson said.
Jones says it’s not uncommon for loved ones to miss the signs.
“People know how to mask. Everybody knows how to put that mask on. When you walk out, you put it on. When you come home, for some men, you put it on. And everything is fine until it’s not,” Jones said.
Suffering in silence
The study authors said young Black men face financial hardship, among other stressors, and may have untreated mental health needs.
“It’s an awful perfect storm of a number of factors,” Alfiee M. Breland-Noble, Ph.D. and founder of the AAKOMA project, said about the reasons behind the upward trend.
Breland-Noble pointed to the fact that young Black men are discriminated against in school and can often be perceived as older than they are.
There is also a lack of Black therapists to speak to young Black men about the hardships they face. No matter how well-meaning a non-Black psychologist is, Breland-Noble said, they can’t relate to the lived experiences of a young Black man.
“They don’t understand the concepts that your family has to deal with, the day-to-day stressors. They don’t understand racial trauma, they don’t understand racism-induced stress,” Breland-Noble said.
Silencing the stigma
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, negative attitudes and beliefs toward people who suffer from mental health challenges are prevalent within the U.S. and can be particularly strong within the Black community.
“Other barriers to help seeking have been mistrust of the medical system and gatekeeping by the Black church,” said therapist Logan Wilson, who specializes in treatment of Black males. “Many still believe that there’s no need to go and sit on a stranger’s couch when they can find what they need in the safety and comfort of a pew, or in prayer with the pastor.”
Jones said it’s imperative that we give Black men the forum to talk.
“The more we talk about it, the more we normalize the conversation,” she said.
Dispelling myths is also key.
“Asking someone if they are suicidal will not increase the risk that they will die by suicide,” said Wilson. Inquiring about potential self-harm in a compassionate way may instead provide an opportunity for the person to express their feelings and reach out for help.
What to look for?
Though Jones said it’s not always easy to see the signs, there are some things to look for.
“Notice habits that change. Noticing hygiene, mood shifts, increased irritability or agitation or decrease in activity. Not wanting to go or do anything, sleeping more, just having a low mood. Sometimes you have to ask the hard questions and just not saying things like, are you okay?”
Experts say you should also point out celebrities, like Wayne Brady and Charlamagne tha God, who openly talk about their mental health problems, inspiring young Black men to open up.
“They’re able to see people who look like them who have said ‘Yeah, this is something I struggle with too.’ That in a tiny way decreases the stigma in terms of the conversation,” Breland-Noble said.
Suicide by the numbers
10th – leading cause of death in the U.S.
Every 11 minutes someone dies
Increased 35% from 1999 to 2018
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273- TALK (8255)
Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective
Black Men Heal
Therapy for Black Girls
NAMI – National Alliance on Mental Illness
Frequently asked questions
Suicide often leaves loved ones with burning questions. We asked experts to address some.
“Why did they do it?”
This is perhaps the most frustrating, confusing and heartbreaking inquiry of all. “We can never fully understand the intense sense of despair, emotional pain, aloneness or desperation that leads a person to die by suicide,” describes Pierre Arty, MD, Chief Psychiatric Officer at Housing Works. Not all people have a longstanding history of depression prior to the fatal act. Jones adds that at times, suicide is planned, but at other times “it is an instant decision that could not have been clearly predicted by either loved ones or clinicians.”
“Why didn’t I see the signs?”
Loved ones immediately second-guess their actions, or lack thereof. Family, friends, coworkers and clinicians are often saddled with guilt, remorse and/or shame for not preventing the individual’s death. “We’re always trying to figure out how, what we could have done to prevent it,” Jones said. “When people are intentional about harming or killing themselves, you know, especially men, they’re very lethal and they will follow through. If I’m intentional about harming myself, I don’t want you to know that, because I don’t want you to interrupt that process. And even if you interrupt, if that person does not stay on top of things, they will find themselves back into that space. When I talk to client who have had suicidal thoughts or ideations, it’s usually not the first time.
“She/he had it all. Why would they kill themselves?”
When Miss USA Chelsie Kirst died, social media became ripe with comments like, ‘But she was so beautiful,’ ‘She had it all.’ The reality we often forget, however, is that celebrities are human beings, just like us. “Everybody has a story. Unfortunately we think money solves it all. Having fame, success should make a person happy. But it’s the relationship we have with ourselves. People who don’t suffer with depression, they don’t understand the internal turmoil that some people are in. So it’s not relatable when you feel there are no other their options, when you want the pain to go away, when you want it to stop and you’ve talked and you’ve done all of these things and it continues to be there. So your thoughts are, if I could just end this, right, I just want to end the pain. And so for someone who’s not been in that space, it is difficult to conceptualize or understand that.”