On Being Strong: Depression, Suicide and Sandra Bland

Sandra Bland taking a selfie
Sandra Bland/Facebook
Sandra Bland/Facebook

Last Monday, as Sandra Bland's body swung in a Waller County, Texas, jail, minutes away from my own home, I had just published an article about police brutality, extrajudicial killings and how we can protect those we love who live with mental illness. My body froze as I learned more about Bland, who, like me, attended a historically black Texas university and decided to return to her alma mater to work with black students like herself. Also like me, Bland had been public about the vicious and often unfathomable ways that black people (men, women and children alike) are treated by police and, it seems, random passersby who decide that their disdain for black lives means they can, at will, end them.

While I feel connected to all of the black lives lost in the ways mentioned above, Bland's death haunts me the most. The idea that this seemingly always smiling, always striving, always standing-up-for-us black woman also reportedly lived with depression is what may bind me closest to Bland, and what makes a deeper conversation about her death necessary. 

I have struggled with depression from my teenage years until now. I have shared my story publicly many times, not in an effort to become a mental health advocate, but because I was tired of wearing a mask that said I was OK, happy, strong and above the pain that I was suffering. Maybe selfishly, I wanted to feel less alone in my struggles. 

I don't pretend to know Sandra Bland or her life, but I know she shared personal videos on her Facebook page using the hashtag #SandySpeaks, which she hoped would bring awareness to issues surrounding race and racism. In a video posted March 1, she speaks about being depressed and having post-traumatic stress disorder. I'm grateful that she was brave and honest about her mental and emotional battles, because often the most dangerous aspect of any mental and/or emotional disorder is the inability to identify or normalize them.

As courageous as Bland was to speak about her (possible) mental illnesses, when viewing the video we have to understand that it does not qualify as a clinical diagnosis of those disorders. Each and every one of us faces the mountains high and valleys low of life. I'd argue that many of us have experienced situational depression. And PTSD and depression are but two of many mental health disorders that can impact the minds of black people in particular attempting to navigate life while encountering white supremacy. Any black person living in the U.S., feeling as though their brothers and sisters here are being hunted by those sworn to protect them, might suffer from symptoms of PTSD, which can include the reliving of traumatic events, avoidance of issues surrounding traumatic events or hopelessness about the future.

Nonetheless, it's important to note that not every depressive episode or crisis with PTSD generates suicidal ideation. Discovering, living with and treating mental illness is complicated and nuanced. We owe it to Bland and those who love her to rightfully question her death while simultaneously speaking about mental illness — what it looks like, who can suffer from it and how we can create better advocacy for someone like her.

We've seen it before, after all. The Magical Negroes who are capable of shooting themselves to death while handcuffed in the back of police cars, or who randomly choose to punch police officers and struggle with them for their guns after being asked simply to get out of the street. We've seen what happens when black people assert their human rights when being harassed by police, or when families call police to help their suffering loved ones.  Hell, we've even see how police murder and maul black children before anyone can speak for or save them. 

We owe it to Bland and those who love her to rightfully question her death while simultaneously speaking about mental illness — what it looks like, who can suffer from it and how we can create better advocacy for someone like her.

When James Baldwin wrote, so prophetically, that "to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time," it was a limitless and sadly a timeless statement on the constant state of being black in America. We are angry.  Even more, our anger and distrust toward the systems that govern us — all of them — is warranted and sealed in blood.

However, even in our grief and our anger over the death of Sandra Bland, we have to provide room for all of the possibilities of her story and realize that regardless of whether she committed suicide or not, or was struggling mentally and emotionally when she was dehumanized and jailed or not, her life — her full life — still matters. 

I was reminded of this by a friend who is also very public about her bouts with depression and PTSD, which have included hospitalizations and suicidal ideation. She shared with me that as much as she is saddened by Bland's death, and as terrible as she feels for Bland's loved ones trying to cope with so many questions about why, she cringes every time she hears someone say that Bland absolutely would not kill herself. We've heard  from Bland's close friends and family that she was on an upswing. She was beginning a new position at Prairie View A&M University. She was too strong and too positive to take her own life.

This is often what friends and family say of someone who commits suicide, and their intentions to uplift their loved one in death are a natural and positive reaction. But here is what I know about the disease of depression: It has no rhyme nor reason. People who appear to be living their best lives can feel hopeless and alone and afraid. Someone suffering from depression cannot always see the truth of who and where they are. And it only takes a moment for everything to fall apart, and fall apart in a way where living doesn't seem to be a worthwhile option.

We don't know what happened to Bland. We don't know what she felt upon being handled roughly by police and then flung into a jail cell for not signaling a lane change. We want to say that Bland was too strong to take her own life, but when we consider how depression overtakes the mind and body, we have to understand that strength has little to do with suicide.

Regardless of what our oppressors attempt to present, and what we often believe about ourselves, we are not magical negroes. We are flesh and bone, and we have hopes and feelings. We are both easily and not so easily broken. And while none of this excuses Sandra Bland's death on the watch of the Waller County Police Department, we have to make sure that we allow Bland to be fully human as we lift her up and continue to ask #WhatHappenedtoSandraBland on every single level.