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Suicide attempts by Black teens have risen, and I'm not surprised

By George M. Johnson

I remember the first time a friend of mine died by suicide. I was living in Washington, D.C. when I got the phone call from our mutual friend, Preston. The friend we’d just lost was a young Black man brimming with potential. He had a smile that lit up a room and an incomparable sense of humor. His death shook us all up and I wondered how many more losses of Black men I’d experience.

Thoughts about depression’s subtle yet brutal grip on my community came flooding back this week after I read CNN’s story about the rise of suicide attempts by black boys, based on a recently released study with data from 1991 to 2017. The individuals who attempted suicide, the story noted, “saw an increase in injuries related to those attempts,” which implied that the teens “were using more lethal means when attempting suicide.” While it was positioned as “news,” these findings fall steadily in line with a large body of research that details how suicidality manifests in Black men and boys.

This concept of Black Americans and self-harm isn’t new and we’re not in the midst of an isolated phase. Researchers are hesitant to postulate why there’s a sudden rise, but Amy Green, director of research for The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization, told CNN that “some of the factors are stressors like discrimination and the experience people have with discrimination and microaggressions."

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My reality is that this suicide statistic is the residue of a society that criminalizes Black boys from the very beginning, while simultaneously discouraging them for expressing the full spectrum of their emotions. Black boys have never been allowed to just be boys. They’ve been seen both as violent threats and individuals unworthy of a childhood (as we all saw Trayvon Martin, who was found dead with a bag of Skittles in his pocket.)

Black boys’ actions are viewed much differently than that of their white counterparts. There’s a reason we’ve seen countless Black boys being killed by police for just existing, while a white teen can shoot up a church and walk, unharmed, into the bowels of the justice system, allegedly, after being given a burger. The manner in which everyone from law enforcement to our very own elders — some of who resort to religion instead of therapy as an antidote for mental illness — illustrates a vast disparity. And without even knowing the details behind these studies that report a rise in suicide attempts, I know how and why they're happening.

Historically speaking, suicide might not have been first on a list of concerns for Black families because homicide's impact couldn't be ignored. As Black kids, many of us have gotten “the talk” — not the birds-and-the bees one, but the “how to survive the cops” conversation. I was around 16 when my parents first started to talk to me about my interactions with police.

I grew up in a cop household but I wasn’t exempt from this; even my father knew his badge would not shield me from a police officer with a bias against Black people. I was taught, early on, that you don’t reach for anything unless asked to do so, that you put both hands on the steering wheel when pulled over, and countless other somber but necessary rules that non-Black children would never likely need.

We, as a country, have begun to grapple with masculinity and fight against the “big boys don’t cry” mentality. But we also need to let Black youth to process their emotions in healthier ways than violence, rage, or self-harm.

These rules, some which we follow and some that we won’t, weather us. Young Black boys constantly have specific, identity-related societal pressures at play in their daily lives. Michael Lindsey, the lead researcher on the new suicide study said that "Black youth tend to express their depression symptoms through physical complaints, through interpersonal challenges, often coming across as irritability or anger." I suspect that anger never gets processed or treated. And to add insult to injury, it’s often vilified, leaving few outlets for Black boys to express their pain.

Two years ago, in a piece called “Black, young and suicidal,” I delved into the suicidal ideation in my community. “Many Black Americans never seek help to deal with mental health, opting for more traditional methods with the use of a religious leader at the church to work through problems,” I wrote. “The stigma around seeking professional help continues to prevent our community from assessing the pressures of society from childhood, with a pathology that forces many of us to accept pain and struggle as a part of our heritage.”

More Black boys are trying to end their own lives, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We as a country have begun to grapple with masculinity and fight against the “big boys don’t cry” mentality. But we also need to help Black youth process their emotions in healthier ways than violence, rage, or self-harm. I stay fighting to destigmatize mental health in the Black community, advocating for our youth to not only have access to professional help but be able to utilize it without being shamed.

On a bigger scale, our lawmakers must push back against zero-tolerance school policies that affect Black kids at much higher rates than their white peers. The school to prison pipeline isn’t just a physical trap, but a mental one. Black kids are walking on eggshells to prevent themselves from falling prey to the system. It’s on us to call out the biases and racism Black youth face regularly, in order to reform and abolish the systems that continue to harm them.

Black death has always been politicized and commodified, but it’s something that is now impossible to ignore. For suicide statistics to fall, we need to give Black kids a basic right that most other kids get: to simply be kids.

If you or a loved one are in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.