Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Black Men and Suicide: Breaking the Silence

Whenever I think about it, words fail me and thoughts go astray. I feel lost as the confusion of the reality of it all sets in. Shaun is gone and there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing anyone can do about it. He should not have done it. This single thought plays over and over in my head like verse on a scratched 45 on an old turntable.  He should not have done it. My cousin should not have committed suicide.

Shaun was only three months into his 36th year the day when he decided to clandestinely carry a semi-automatic shotgun into the home his mother resided and rang out two shots that would end his life.  Two shots, one moment in time, lives changed forever. Senseless and irreversible. He should not have done that. That’s all I could think about when I first learned the truth. Later, thoughts and memories of him were swirling around in my head as emotions threatened to reach a breaking point.  After the phone calls, the viewing, the drama, and the funeral, long after everyone was gone and I could steal a moment away, the tears finally began to fall. The one question I could not answer and put to rest haunted me as I struggled to wrap my head around the new reality.  Why?

Sadly there may never be a concrete answer to that question. There’s only a lot of speculation and the piecing together of a puzzle that may never fully reflect the entire truth. Shaun did not leave a suicide note or a letter behind to explain it. There were no revolutions of the depths of his agony or why he embraced death as his only resolution. We didn’t see it coming.

By The Numbers
We live in a nation where suicide is still not talked about. The subject is still treated like a dirty secret that’s carried on hushed tones or gossiped about when it’s wrapped in celebrity. Let’s break that unspoken tradition for a moment and talk numbers. Four years ago 38,364 Americans took their own lives making suicide the 10th leading cause of death. That boils down to one suicide for every 13.7 minutes. In a 20 year period, from 1990 to 2010, despite initially a decrease of suicides from 12.5 to 10.4 per 100,000 people, cases steadily rose back to the 12.1 mark.  The CDC breaks down the statistics on suicide by age, sex, race/ethnicity, and geographic region/state. The highest group to commit suicide belong to the Baby Boomers (people between the ages of 45 to 64 years old) at a rate of 18.6%. Men are 4 times more likely to commit suicide at a rate of 78.9% than women with a rate of 21.1%. Whites are more likely to commit suicide at a rate of 14.1% with the second highest rate being among Native American and Alaskan Natives with 11.0%. These states are followed by Asians and Pacific Islanders (6.2 %), Hispanics (5.9%) and African-Americans (5.1 %) Americans living in the western United States commit suicide at the highest rate (13.6%) followed close behind by the south with a rate of 12.6%. Cases in the Midwest reached 12% trailed by the Northeast with 9.3%. These were the only reported cases.

What does all of this even mean? It means we lose more Americans lives to suicide than car accidents. It means that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young Americans between the ages of 10 to 24. It’s the third leading cause of death among African-American youth. LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide with the average of 5,000 a year of completed suicides. It means a lot of people are dying, especially our young and those in the baby boomer generation. Many of these deaths, if not most, could be prevented.

So what is the solution? What can we do? We can start by lifting the stigma suicide carries. We can take away the taboo centered around it. There are many red flags associated with suicide, and if taken seriously could save someone’s life.

Warning Signs
The number one cause of suicide is untreated depression. 90% of those who committed suicide were suffering from a mental illness at the time of death. Millions of Americans are suffering from mental illnesses including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Many of these cases are going undiagnosed and untreated. There is still stigma associated with having a mental illness and many do not seek treatment.

In the African-American community, this stigma may be more severe. Attitudes in the African-American community still prevail that depression is something to get over or at best to be prayed away. Suicide is seen as something done by “white folks” and is seen as weak for a race that has survived the horrors and tribulations of slavery to succumb to. In fact, the opposite often happens. In 2005, suicide reached the 3rd leading cause of black males between the ages of 15 to 24 which accounted for 80% of all suicides in the community. The rate is high enough to account for one African-American death every 4.5 hours. While suicide rates are higher among Whites, this tragic truth is taking more of a toll in the black community than many want to believe.

The reality of suicide is even more dismal in the LGBT community. A study by Bell and Weinberg found that 25% of lesbians and 20% of gay men actually attempted suicide at some point in their lives, usually during their youth. Other studies have found that excess prejudice, discrimination, and stigma experienced by minorities in the LGBT community lead to enlarged mental health problems and have resulted in an increase of a risk of suicide. There are over 500,000 reported attempts annually.

Other warning signs include an increase of alcohol or drug use. Talk of suicide shouldn’t be taken lightly. Often before a person actually attempts to go through with the act, they may express a desire to death or become preoccupied with violence and dying. Many actually have attempted suicide before actually completing it. Buying weapons or an increase of purchasing medications is another indication that a person is preparing for suicide. Withdrawal, severe mood swings, feelings of being trapped in a negative situation and hopelessness are also signs. If a loved one becomes engaged in risky or destructive behavior, giving away belongings, especially cherished ones, or saying goodbye as if they won’t be seen again, take it seriously and talk to them. Urge and help them to seek assistance.

Three weeks before Shaun died, his behavior became increasingly erratic. He was happy go lucky in one moment and raging the next. Years ago, he turned to drugs to fight the demons plaguing him. After a period of being clean, he relapsed, once again turning to the substances that temporarily eased his pain. On a sun filled day at the end of March, he flashed our uncle that smile he was known for as he entered the house, wielded the shout gun hidden in a bag he was carrying, and ended his life. In an instant, he became one of the 80% of black males who made the same decision as he did. In seconds, he became one of the 50% of suicides in this nation that used a firearm. He became among that 90% of cases that were suffering from depression at the time of his death. Like one million people annually, Shaun had tried at least one previous time to commit suicide.

I supposed he can be viewed as becoming yet another number, a statistic of a tragedy that strike millions of Americans and their families. Shaun was more than a statistic. He was a son. He was a father to a beautiful and talented 16 year old girl. He was a grandson, a brother, and a friend. He was my cousin. We were only two years apart. In different circumstances, maybe we would have grown up closer, shared more moments together, and created more memories. Even so, we shared a bond; a bond that was felt with the phone calls, pictures shared, text messages, and yes the few Facebook messages we sent to one another.

I often wonder if I had been around him more in our adult lives, could I have done something to prevent it. Maybe I would have caught a glimpse or a sign, or maybe he would have said something. Why didn’t he say something? We talked just a month before his death. Why didn’t he reach out then? Why didn’t I pick up on something, anything that would have given me an inkling that something was wrong?

The fact is, I can question every scenario and “what ifs” that my mind can manufacture, but still would not come up with any resolutions. It would not change a thing. My cousin was hurting so deeply and profoundly, he felt the only way out for him was death. A void has been left in his wake on such a scale no one could ever conceive. Maybe he didn’t feel so in life, but hopefully, somehow, he knows this one and irresolute fact. Shaun, you are loved and sorely missed.

Many people do not exhibit signs that they are about to end their lives. Pay attention to the ones around you. If you sense something amiss, or suspect something may not be right, don’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes, a life can be saved with a simple act of compassion.

If you or anyone you know has thoughts about, talked about, or has tried to commit suicide, please seek help right away. Only with the de-stigmatization of suicide and factors relating to suicide can the greater loss of life be prevented. Listed below are some organizations that can provide help and assistance.

National Suicide Lifeline

Active Minds (Youth Prevention)

National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide
P.O. Box 75571
Washington, DC 20013
Ph: (202) 549-6039

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
120 Wall Street
29th Floor
New York, NY 10005
Ph (888) 333-2377

The Trevor Project (LGBTQ)
PO Box 69232
West Hollywood, CA 90069

1828 L Street, NW
Suite 660
Washington, D.C. 20036
(202) 467-8180

Tara Parker-Pope http://nyti.ms/1rvoFt9
Paul Gibson L.C.S.W. http://bit.ly/1rsxzFK 
Clarence Page http://bit.ly/1hzvrXg
Dr. Donald E Grant, Jr.  http://bit.ly/1mNcxUJ

Male Media Mind