Black & Blue: The Color of Suicide

Sometimes the bough breaks.

Sometimes the yoke is heavy.

Sometimes the rainbow just isn’t enough.

Sometimes strength is a burden.

Sometimes the pain is paralyzing.

Sometimes, Black does crack.

But Always…the truth sets us free. 

Combating the stigma of mental illness in our communities is still an ongoing battle. So, it goes without saying; talking about suicide is tough and almost non-existent. Historically, suicide has been considered a “white thing” among many African Americans. Culturally, we clutch our pearls at the simple thought of self-harm. Instead, we cherish and take pride in our identity of being mighty, resilient, religious, strong, and apparently invincible. I mean, we’re Black girls who rock and having a mental illness doesn’t quite fit that narrative, right? Unfortunately, for some, this is their truth. The truth that binds us.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, over 40,000 people commit suicide each year. In fact, it is the 10th leading cause of death. We are not exempt. We may be magical, but we’re not invulnerable. Suicide is not an insignificant issue for African Americans, and we must reexamine any myths and illusions that tell us otherwise, for they only force us to continue to suffer in silence.

As African American women, we have a long history of navigating marginalization, racism, sexism, classism, and redefining stereotypes. Unfortunately, we live in a society whose primary source of information regarding our culture often comes from social media, reality television, and film. Simply put, we are often misunderstood. Heck, many of us don’t even understand ourselves. Well, unfortunately, this isn’t Wakanda and we don’t have an endless supply of Vibranium. Honestly, many of us are like Mary Jane more than we care to admit, living a life quite different from the one depicted on our social media handles. The reality is: life gets hard. Some of us experience psychological stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, social isolation, family dysfunction, violent relationships, and poor coping and communication skills. It doesn’t help that we have limited access to culturally competent mental health services due to stigmas and a deeply rooted distrust of mental health professionals.

We have to resist conventional thinking.

The strongest resistance to our freedom is shame. We’re ashamed to admit that we’re sad, worried, have failed, need healing, and that we’ve been hurt and have wounds that still ache at the slightest touch. We are too ashamed to acknowledge that we’re sick and tired of being the strong Black woman, a shame that costs us greatly and results in us suffering in the shadows, attempting to manage the weight of the world – our families, finances, and careers in silence – on bended knees.

We’re ashamed of our struggle, for accepting it threatens our projected image. We’re ashamed to admit that we’ve failed to attain an unrealistic ideal state. We simply don’t own our pain.

Instead, we pray. We rely on our religion and relationship with God to protect us from any pain we can’t handle.  Trust me, I get it. I pray, I know its power. Our rationale makes sense; the church has been the heart of our community for centuries. It certainly has a longstanding history of safety and comfort. During slavery and Jim Crow, the Church was our only place of respite. It even held the organizational plans of the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement. Church allows us to be free, imperfect, and often provides a much needed exhale from a week of holding our breath. For some of us, it’s the only time we have to lay our burdens down. But, we can’t simply pray away PTSD, shout out from schizophrenia, or lay hands on bipolar disorder. It’s time to stop pretending. This illusion prevents us from confronting the pain of our lives or the pain of our loved ones.

We don’t tell people to pray away cancer, diabetes or HIV, we tell them to see a doctor. In fact, we actually go with them. We must end the double standard. We must understand that cancer and mental illness are both medical conditions, ones that can result in death. We can’t accept one without accepting the other.

God is real. Depression is, too.

The truth is liberating. It’s imperative that we embrace our truth and start doing our work towards self-preservation. Let’s start by:

Reframing conversations – We have to create safe spaces were we can be honest and open with those who we love and who genuinely love us in return. We need a space to be able to say, “All is not well with my soul.” Places like ‘sister circles’ can be life changing, for within them we can challenge and reject social structures that attempt to paint us as anything but human, valuable, and worthy; endurance, perseverance and self-sacrifice are not measures of our value or success. In our circles we pray, but we will also come up with a plan.

Re-evaluating relationships – We must examine the nature of our relationships with others, the long-standing narratives that force us to adopt the pressures of being Superwoman, Strong Black Woman, or hiding our emotions so that we aren’t considered and an Angry Black Woman. Reject stereotypes and let’s break-up with these narratives without dismissing their seeds of truth. Sure, at times we are stronger than expected, we have persevered when others collapsed, and endured pain that make us angry, but our exceptionalism is not limited. We have to discontinue relationships that force us to rely solely on prayer as a scapegoat for confronting life’s real issues. We must relinquish our seat at tables that no longer serve us or force us to consume the idea that we are anything less than authentically human.

Reflecting – Setting aside time to conduct emotional and cognitive audits is critical. While spending time alone, we can ask ourselves those tough questions like, ‘am I really okay, how can I be better, what do I need, does this relationship honor me and how can I make my own dreams come true?’ Quiet time alone enables us to look at our goals, priorities, and behaviors to see if they align. Time alone allows us to reconnect with the vision we have for our lives or to create one; a self-check-up that holds you accountable. Journaling and meditating are great ways to honor time with yourself.

Reconnecting – We can go further, together. Sadly, we live in a society where we embrace false positives. The automatic reply of “I’m fine,” is enough for us to carry on with our day without requiring any follow-up information. Making time to reconnect with our girlfriends who recently married, had a baby, started a new job, or lost a loved one, etc.… allows us to “see” beyond a text reply or blushing emoji. Reconnecting allows us to notice potential suicide warning signs, such as a change in mood to one of hopelessness, increased conversation about feeling trapped or being burdensome to others, social isolation, increased drinking or withdrawal from activities once enjoyed. Reconnecting embraces the fact that it’s okay to be our sister’s keeper.

Reaching Out – We are neither meant for nor built to endure life alone. The truth is, so many of us aren’t fine and we refuse to get help. I fully understand that culturally many of us were taught young that, “what goes on in this house stays in this house!” That narrative no longer serves us. Factually, keeping our thoughts and emotions “in house” can actually destroy our house. Even strong people need people. We will make time for the salon on Friday, shopping on Saturday, and church on Sunday, but won’t carve out time for therapy. Maybe we stomp our Gucci loafers as we complain that therapy is too expensive. I’d be the first to admit that a good scalp wash, comfy jeans, and a cry at the alter are all therapeutic, but there’s nothing like honoring you by investing in your true health and healing.

Help is endless. Most counties have mental health clinics and facilities that provide services at a low, or sometimes no, cost. Websites such as Open Path (openpathcollective.org) allow you to search for therapists in your area who provide services for as low as $30 a session. Similarly, Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists) allows you to search for therapists using factors such as ethnicity, city, specialty, and cost.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress.

Similarly, texting “help” to 741-741 immediately connects you with a Crisis Counselor, a real person trained to listen and provide support through collaborative problem solving.

If you know someone considering suicide, listen, be sympathetic, offer hope, take them seriously and get them help.  If you are considering suicide, talk to someone, be honest, take your feelings seriously, ask for help.

We are magical, we’re not invincible. Whether you’re a fan of Jay-Z (who said you can’t heal what you never reveal) or Jeremiah 6:14-16 (who said “you can’t heal a wound by saying it’s not there”) the message is the same: pretending that suicide doesn’t exist in our communities won’t make it go away.

Keep Going