Suicide was once considered an issue outside the African-American experience. However, over the past two decades there has been a dramatic rise in African-American suicides, particularly with male teens. Yet, awareness of this new reality has been slow to set in.
Other communities have taken measures to confront the issue of suicide. Recently, for example, two separate studies have been commissioned to look at military suicides in hopes of preventing more. The studies, totaling $67 million in funding, are in part, responses to 1,100 U.S. servicemen and women who committed suicide between 2005 and 2009.
Dr. Pauline Clansy, Clinical Director of Charis Psychological Associates, one of the few Christian-based, family-owned clinics in Houston, hopes a similar response will take root in the African-American community. Clansy, who runs the clinic with two of her daughters, Dr. Cheryl D. Clansy, a licensed professional counselor, and Dr. Carolyn Clansy Miller, a clinical psychologist, says statistics point to young African-American males as most susceptible to suicide.
“Suicide is more of a male issue nationwide, affecting nine out of every 100,000 Black males compared to 1.7 per 100,000 Black females, and 15 per 100,000 white males,” said Dr. Clansy, the retired Director of the Psychological Services Department for HISD and first African American to serve as chair of the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists.
Until the mid 80s, research was being done to determine the reason for the striking difference in the suicide rates of whites and African Americans. Yet, between 1980 and 1995, the suicide rate of African-American males doubled to eight deaths per 100,000 people. According to the American Association of Suicidology, the rate of suicide among African- American males ages 15-24 increased 83 percent during that period. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for African- American males 15 to 24.
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for all Texans, and the second leading cause of death for college age students. Regardless of age or race, males are more likely to die because of suicide than females. Nationally, African-American males are seven times more likely to commit suicide than African American women.
Michael Thomas, a local Christian Psychotherapist, believes a lack of support systems is a major reason why African American suicide rates are now even with those of whites.
“Back in the day we didn’t move far from home so we had support systems in place—family, church, pro-African American institutions,” said Thomas. “As we moved further away from home we left behind our supports, and didn’t establish new ones.”
Thomas also sites African Americans’ general negative attitude toward psychological counseling.
“We view seeking help as a weakness. Oftentimes, as we move and establish our own careers, if we feel depressed we keep it to ourselves and that darkness expands. We become more withdrawn and isolated, and feel we can’t turn to family for fear of embarrassment or lack of understanding,” said Thomas.
Dr. Clansy points to two additional reasons for the rise: untreated mental illness and depression.
“Mental illness for Black men goes untreated because often they lack the means to handle it. They may be unemployed or have felonies, which can lead to a cycle of helplessness. They lack the funds to receive treatment, or when they do, it is often inadequate. Then you pile on that negative life experiences and it often triggers more feelings of hopelessness,” shared Clansy.
“Second, I’ve found that separation from their children, whether from losing custody or being unable to see their children at all, and the inability to find employment serve as triggers for depression and suicide. A large part of the male image is tied to employment. Losing a job, house and income to secure those things play a large part,” stated Clansy.
Dr. Carolyn Scantlebury, a Yale-educated psychologist, sees additional factors at work.
“We’ve gotten away from touching and talking,” said Scantlebury. “We’re texting and Facebooking and losing the human element. We’ve got to get back to human touch.”
Scantlebury, president of the NAACP Houston chapter, says there are also negative physiological and psychological affects that come from our bad food choices, lacking a positive self-image, and accepting hyper-materialism.
“The Holidays are notorious for depression and suicide. Add to this, minds programmed for materialism confronting our current global economic woes, and you see the seriousness of this issue,” said Scantlebury, whose NAACP chapter hosted a workshop last year on dealing with the Holiday Blues.
Thomas offers a different take on the relationship between depression and suicide.
“Contrary to popular belief people who are depressed don’t commit suicide. It’s only when they’re feeling a little bit better that they have the energy to focus on such an undertaking,” said Thomas.
The African-American suicide risk factors as outlined by noted Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint, include being under age 35, residing in southern and northeastern states, using cocaine, having a firearm in the home, and threatening others with violence. Poussaint, who co-authored Lay My Burden Down, a book about African Americans and suicide, contends, along with Thomas, that physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches are often depression manifested physically.
“When we do psychological autopsies on those who have committed suicide we find that around 75 percent visited their primary care physician within 30 days of killing themselves, complaining of headaches, tension, and stress,” said Thomas.
Thomas mentioned withdrawal, isolation, saying goodbyes, tying up loose ends, not valuing things once valued, and disconnecting from people as additional signs of a person potentially contemplating suicide.
“Though we have the same triggers that exist in other communities, with Black males, especially those who show no traditional signs, often its sexual struggles, gender issues or abuse and molestation from the past,” added Thomas.
Clansy points out different factors for children and young adults.
“Children may be moody, act out, get into arguments, experience declining grades. They sometimes draw pictures or write essays that speak of death or no longer living. They show some kind of helplessness or hopelessness. Where before they were very involved, now you see a person who no longer wants to be active,” said Clansy.
“In adults, you look for individuals appearing to be depressed or sad via facial expressions, body language, or job performance. They were once top employees but now they’re dropping the ball, not finishing projects on time. They might withdraw from friends and family. You may see snappiness and very strong feelings of rage for seemingly inconsequential things. They may also abuse drugs and/or alcohol, act out impulsively, and see death as the only way out of their situation,” said Clansy.
Additional signs include irritability, changes in appetite and sleep habits, body pains, chronic fatigue, lack of desire to get up in the morning, and prolonged sadness. “Slow suicides”—self-destructive behaviors such as drug or alcohol addiction, gang involvement and other high risk behaviors, that can accompany depression, are also considered key signs..
According to Clansy the three top methods for committing suicide are firearms, hanging or suffocation, or poisoning oneself, which includes drug abuse.
“We don’t hear about Blacks shooting, hanging or suffocating themselves unless in jail, but we hear about drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning all of the time. Yet, we don’t think of those deaths as suicides,” said Clansy.
However, there are preventative steps that can be taken.
Scantlebury recommends a mass exodus from the commercial-focus of holidays like Christmas, and putting down the electronic devices long enough to engage in conversation and active listening with family.
Clansy suggests talking to those you may suspect as depressed, followed by taking them to a competent therapist.
“And if they are seriously suicidal you do not want to leave them alone; keep them with you until you find some help,” said Clansy.
Clansy recommends therapy and medication for depression stemming from internal issues such as the body fails to produce adequate supplies of endorphins that give the mind and body warm, positive feelings.
“However, when depression stems from a major event that causes significant sadness, such as the loss of a best friend, you have to help them recover by teaching the skills to recover—how to choose good friends, how to be a good friend. Also, get them involved in age-appropriate activities,” shared Clansy, who challenged those working with children to pay attention to those children who tend to be alone and work to get them more involved, invested and connected with others.
Thomas calls for community members to be proactive.
“You’ve got to feed children on a daily basis the idea that they can do anything, and that if their first method fails, seek a new way. Second, give them chores—dishes, the trash, dusting. Third, celebrate their work rather than merely getting on them when they don’t do well. Make a big deal out of something they may not see as so important. They may respond that it’s no big deal but they will walk away with a smile on their face so big it can’t be measured. And fourth, don’t be afraid to talk to them about suicide.
Many engaged in the larger national conversation on this issue suggest the bigger challenge is redefining Black masculinity in general, and developing a positive attitude toward men seeking help for mental-health issues, specifically.