It’s a common adage that black people do not commit suicide as much as whites, or any other racial/ethnic group — and this is actually very true. Blacks have the lowest suicide rates with nearly six per 100,000 members of the racial or ethnic population, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control this January.
More often you may hear that Black women don’t kill themselves, and we do have the lowest suicide rate of all racial and ethnic groups. However, that does not mean that suicidal urges and tendencies are missing from the community. Additionally, the research and data on Black suicide and mental illness is very male-oriented. This, combined with the low numbers, detracts from the fact that Black women do attempt and succeed at suicide. Black women do suffer from depression as well as self-treatment tendencies such as drug and alcohol abuse, which can add to the risk of suicidal behaviors. The idea that Black women have the lowest rates of suicide translates into “Black women don’t kill themselves,” which further processes into “Black women don’t need help or medical treatment.” A sentiment that, quite frankly, is bullshit.
On April 11, 2013, I entered my university’s campus health services building choking back tears. I had always been told growing up that crying was a sign of weakness. So I kept my cool — I stayed strong until I made my way up to the third floor where counseling and wellness is located. I filled out the necessary paperwork and kept it together until I was called back to speak with a counselor.
That’s when I crumbled apart and I finally allowed myself to cry.
Earlier that morning, I had every intention of taking my butcher knife and slicing my wrists open. I had every intention on laying in the floor until I bled out and, eventually, died. I had every intention on killing myself because I just didn’t see the point in living anymore. I was depressed. I sought treatment, but I was a part of a very small portion of Black women who do. And I didn’t seek help sooner because I wanted to appear as though everything was finally okay. I despised that feeling of weakness that often comes with seeking psychiatric help, and, based on conversations I’ve had with other Black women, this is a common feeling.
Only 12% of Black women seek treatment for mental health issues. And, if you look at how our society and the Black community are set up, you can get a better grasp on why such a low percentage of black women seek help.
Mental health is incredibly taboo within the Black community. “We’ve always been told that we’re immune to things such as depression,” said Dr. William B. Lawson, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Howard University Health Sciences, in a 2010 radio interview.
But depression is a very real monster that plagues Black folk. Mayo Clinic defines depression as:
A mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depression, major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and depression may make you feel as if life isn’t worth living.
12.9% of blacks meet the criteria denoting some form of current depression, based on data from a 2010 CDC study. Blacks are also more likely than whites to suffer from chronic depression (56.5% versus 38.6%). The CDC study also found that women Blacks, Hispanics, and other non-white people are more likely to meet depression criteria. So it is safe to assume that Black women are the most at-risk group for depression and thus suicide.
More importantly, Mayo Clinic denotes that depression is not something you can simply “snap out” of. There is an unwillingness to seek psychiatric help in the Black community as lots of us, especially women, are expected to simply snap out of it and get over it. We are often told, and expected, to “stay strong.” This phraseology has the potential to be deadly because it is impossible to remain strong at all times. This adage leaves no room for mistakes; thus, it forces Black women to internalize perfectionist tendencies in terms of our professional and academic work, our bodies (which are held to European standards), and our social lives. And, when we feel ourselves faltering, we do not seek help because who would be able to understand the psychological cracking of a woman who, supposedly, never breaks?
This “don’t ask, don’t tell” type policy against mental illness leaves Black women incredibly vulnerable. It makes us very susceptible to the Superwoman Syndrome, which manifests when a woman strives to be a top-notch worker, homemaker, student, hold any other time-intensive position or a combination of these. Lots of Black women feel pressure to be perfect because we inhabit a society that typecasts us as whores, ghetto, baby mama’s, unintelligent, and ratchet. Black women often feel as though we have something to prove. We feel as though we must exceptional in order to counteract the negative stereotypes against us.
This takes a toll on your mental state. Believe me.
“I think I was just overloaded with everything, with carrying six years of so much,” the American Idol winner said on the show. “I always take a licking and keep on ticking…it just became heavy for me to the point that I just wanted to be away from the noise.”
Barrino’s sentiments surrounding her suicide attempt speak to Black women’s attempts to stay strong in the face of all adversity. Black women have a difficult road to travel because not only are we burdened with racism, we deal with sexism and colorism— either overtly or covertly — on a daily basis. We are subjected to classism due to a lack of access to economic resources because of double marginalization based upon our simultaneous racial and gender identities. We are more susceptible to being hypersexualized and fetishized. We have to balance out our blackness with the double standards and high expectations given to us by white society and by our own communities.
We are also often missing from the rhetoric that touches upon the ills that plague our community. Research findings on the rates of drug and alcohol use amongst black women are almost non-existent. It’s almost as if intersectionality does not exist if you a black woman, or any woman of color for that matter.
25% of substance abuse treatment admissions for Black women were for alcohol abuse, according to a SAMHSA study. 35% were for crack/cocaine and 18% were for opioid abuse. Another study on 12-month prevalence rates of drug use among female undergraduate college students showed that almost 25% of Black women used illicit drugs.
So although we boast the highest undergraduate enrollment of any other group, are we really receiving the support we need?
Rhetoric on black-on-black violence doesn’t include sexual violence against Black women even though we comprise 18.8% of rape victims. Black women are constantly held to unrealistic European beauty standards in terms of our bodies and our hair. All discussions about prison rates revolve around black male incarceration but no one really mentions how the fastest growing prison population is Black (and Latina) women. People also leave out how when Black men go to jail, Black women are often left alone with sometimes multiple jobs and mouths to feed.
Matters of love weigh in on Black women as well. Between 2006 and 2010, Black women had the highest percentage of people who had never married (55%) and the lowest probability of getting married by the age of 35, based on the 2012 National Health Statistic Reports. Black women also have the lowest chance of a marriage lasting for at least 20 years.
Thus, it is understandable why Halle Berry felt hopeless and attempted suicide in 2007 after her marriage to David Justice dissolved. LaShanda Armstrong killed herself and her three children by driving her van into the Hudson River because she felt alone as a single mother.
I can imagine that, at least initially, Armstrong wanted to keep the family she had left intact. Lots of Black women feel the same way. The top five reasons black women stay mum, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health, on mental illness are:
-It might hurt our families
-It might hurt our careers
-People might perceive us as crazy
-People might perceive us as weak
There is no shame or weakness in seeking help, however. Taking that first step and admitting that you need treatment is one of the strongest things anyone can do for themselves and their loved ones. It’s time for Black women to remove our masks and stop trying to keep up appearances. If you are depressed and/or having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone. Please do not allow the false perceptions of Black female mental health to stop you from getting better…and living the full, happy life you DESERVE to live.
If you or anyone you know needs support, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255.)