The year 2022 will be remembered as the year we came back outside! Though COVID-19 still exists, we returned to classrooms, boardrooms, airplanes, and events with full steam, reminiscent of the good old days of 2019.
Unfortunately, the years of the pandemic showed an alarming non-COVID-related statistic: an exponential rise in suicide attempts and completions by people of African descent.
This past year is especially notable for Black suicides – Black men in particular. including Mayor Kevin Ward of Hyattsville, Maryland, “Walking Dead” actor Moses J. Moseley, Regina King’s son Ian Alexander, Jr., South African rapper Riky Rick, actor Patrick Shai, and comedian Jak Knight all are alleged to have died by their own hands in 2022.
The death of entertainer Stephen “tWitch” Boss, star of the “Ellen Degeneres Show” and “So You Think You Can Dance” shocked the world. Mere hours before ending his life, we saw him in a social media video and making a post that included the words “Don’t give up… keep going.” Hypotheses erupted about how and why this happened to a man that seemed so happy.
We tend to characterize depression as something obvious and dramatic, imagining someone who cries constantly, never smiles, lets their hygiene deteriorate and demonstrates overt symptoms that are easily recognized by others. Major Depressive Disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by these severe, episodic symptom bouts that may show themselves more readily in some. However, others may present more covertly, experiencing Persistent Depressive Disorder, which can last for many years and can involve low self-esteem, feeling like a failure, hopelessness and loss of interest. These symptoms can become easy to mask, but their chronicity can contribute to suicidality.
An unshakeable rain cloud is sometimes worse than an occasional storm. Tyler Perry summarized this experience in a vulnerable Instagram post just after tWitch’s death, admitting his own history of suicidality.
Suicides are often described as random acts that occur without warning, but many Black men are exhibiting signs of passive suicidality long before the final act is completed. Substance abuse, purposefully aggressive interactions with law enforcement, high-risk behaviors including reckless driving and unsafe sexual practices, might be “slow” or “passive” suicidal behaviors that go unnoticed in this population specifically. In fact, some of these behaviors are lauded as necessary tenets of Black manhood, instead of recognized as pleas for help or more socially acceptable methods of ending one’s life.
Doubly impacting Black men, is the stigma placed on experiencing mental health challenges among men and in the Black community in general. The shame associated with simply admitting one isn’t well, the social requirement for Black men to avoid all signs of alleged weakness, and the normalizing of traumatic experiences as rites of passage that should strengthen the spirit, all minimize Black men’s ability to seek and receive help when needed. Research suggests that even those that pursue treatment are often minimized by their own mental health professionals for these same reasons.
This is also true for Black boys. Because we normalize anger management issues, behavioral problems in school, sudden mood changes, lack of academic performance and even preoccupation with death (due to perceived gang culture and violence in popular music) in Black boys, we can miss the signs of suicidality among Black male youth.
Additionally, Black people can be exceptionally skilled at “faking good;” soldiering on in the face of adversity. We are talking about a people who endured enslavement and continue to endure racism on systemic and individual levels, yet remain astute at the performance of daily activities. As such, just like the assumption that Black women don’t feel physical pain the way that others do continues to pervade American medicine, the assumption that Black men don’t feel emotional pain is equally ubiquitous.
If there is one positive here, tWitch’s death has sparked some Black men to declare that enough is enough. Many Black men are coming forth and admitting their own history of depression and suicidality and are publicly committing on their social media pages to create safe spaces for the Black men in their lives to be free to acknowledge mental health struggles.
Suicide prevention strategies tailored for Black men are essential and the following resources are places to start for those in need: Black Men Heal, The National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (Dial 988), National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide (NOPCAS). If you or anyone you know is seriously contemplating suicide, please contact the nearest psychiatric emergency center.