Several suicides in the span of one month have placed a focus on mental health in the Black community.
Cheslie Kryst, 30, winner of Miss USA in 2019 and an “Extra” correspondent, died by suicide Sunday, and Ian Alexander Jr., son of actor and director Regina King, died just days after his 26th birthday. Kevin Ward, mayor of Hyattsville, Maryland, died last week of apparent suicide, according to a statement from the city, which described Ward as “a valued and trusted leader and a fierce advocate for all the people.”
Mental health challenges have been on the incline for many in recent years, due to the pandemic and other factors. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data collected between June 24 and 30, 2020, 40 percent of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or using substances. Meanwhile, depression rates among adolescents was twice that of adults, according to 2020 National Institute of Mental Health data.
Adolescent males and Black males, in particular, have experienced the highest increase in suicide attempts, according to an analysis of data between 1991 and 2019 published by JAMA Network Open in June. The study pointed to a growing mental health crisis among young people, even before the Covid-19 pandemic. According to separate data published by JAMA Network Open in May, between 2014 and 2019, the age-adjusted suicide rate in Black individuals increased by 30 percent.
Factors related to structural inequality and social determinants of health may contribute to the increased rate of suicide attempts among Black adolescents.
The June study in JAMA Network Open noted that Black adolescents are more likely to experience behavioral challenges, live in households with financial hardships and endure socioeconomic inequalities like poverty and racial segregation, and these obstacles could result in untreated mental illness, hopelessness and risk of suicidal behavior. The study also said Black adolescents are more likely to have adverse childhood experiences compared to white and Latino adolescents, which also could contribute to the higher risk of attempting suicide.
Ebony Butler, a psychologist and food relationship specialist, said the pandemic has constantly reminded people how close they are to death, causing them to act in survival mode. The pandemic only amplified the anguish for people already experiencing trauma, she said, while also limiting the coping skills to navigate it.
“So people are trying to escape, not really wanting to kill themselves,” Butler said. “That’s the mechanism by which we can escape permanently. But at the core of suicide is this need to escape the painful reality that we’re living in. So the pandemic compounded all of this stuff, and many of us just wanted to escape.”
To help Black women and teens gain more insight into the issues affecting them and to give people an entry point for exploring their mental health, Butler created a tool called My Therapy Cards.
The cards include questions such as “What self-limiting thoughts do you have that keep getting in your way?” and “Which habits do you want to develop to push you closer to your goals?” These prompts aim to help individuals work through their mental blocks, habits and triggers.
Butler also created a set with questions for Black men, helping them address issues through self-discovery and insight. Butler suggested participants work on one card per week and use that time to write in a journal or discuss their responses with a friend, partner or therapist.
According to Tasnim Sulaiman, a licensed professional counselor and family and marriage therapist, many Black men, like a lot of people today, are struggling with life issues and experiencing symptoms of depression without knowing how to address those challenges.
Sulaiman said she co-founded Black Men Heal in 2018 because she was tired of the seeming “war against Black men in this country.” Having a father who served in the Vietnam War, she witnessed his experience with post-traumatic stress disorder, which she said affected her relationship with him.
Her organization provides qualified applicants eight free therapy sessions and matches clients with mental health experts based on their needs. Sulaiman said since launching the program, her own preconceived notion that Black men did not want therapy has been debunked by the large number of applicants.
And the pandemic has further underscored the shortage of culturally competent mental health providers. Sulaiman said the pandemic led to a 398 percent increase in applicants between 2020 and 2021.
Despite the surprisingly high demand, she said there is a stigma associated with male masculinity that prevents some from seeking support for mental health issues.
“Stigma stays alive from secrecy and shame,” Sulaiman said. “So when you have men who are going back out, they become mental health advocates themselves.”
She said Black men who are sharing their experiences transparently are “automatically killing the secrecy — and if they’re normalizing, they’re killing the shame.”
Christiana Ibilola Awosan, who holds a doctorate in marriage and family therapy, said people of color often overextend themselves, in trying to be there for others, or isolate themselves, which can both lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. Awosan applies a framework in her practice that incorporates the realities of being a person of color related to oppression, racism and structural inequality. When people over-exhaust themselves, they are unable to meet everyone’s needs, she said, while on the other hand, people can isolate themselves because they feel they are not important to others.
Awosan said suicidal ideation can be recognized in conversation. Repetitive statements such as “I’m tired of all this” or “I just don’t want to be here” are something to pay attention to. She also said people contemplating suicide experience feelings of worthlessness, guilt and a lack of energy, and they may be easily agitated or cause frequent arguments.
People who are active on social media can also be experiencing feelings of isolation. Butler said she can usually tell when people are down if she sees them posting old photos of themselves having a good time.
“People think isolation means ‘I go into a dark room and close the door,’” she said. “We can isolate in plain view.”
Butler also said people contemplating suicide may start to give away their belongings or make amends with others out of the blue.
When people reach out to their friends and family for support, she said it’s important to let the person seeking help know they are in a safe space. It’s also important to ask direct questions centered on how the person is doing.
“So while we all need our space, we also need to be creating these safe spaces, where people feel like they can go and lay down the things that they’ve been carrying,” Butler said.
Butler suggested that people experiencing feelings of depression seek out a licensed therapist. In addition to using her therapy cards, she said she helps her clients build a “survival box” made up of actions they can take to help improve their mood. Steps include creating a favorite music playlist and selecting an item that initiates a positive nostalgic memory.
“One of the worst things you can do when you’re depressed and anxious for a prolonged period of time is to isolate,” she said. “So get around people. Get the energy from other people. That takes you up a notch, and it actually helps you to live through that moment.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.