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Gone Too Soon: Black Males and Suicide

Little is written and even less is said about the prevalence of completed suicide among Black males, despite the alarming rates of fatal self-harm completed by Black males every year.
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At age 16, despite being given no trial, Kalief Browder was imprisoned at Rikers Island, where he would spend the next three years of his life unjustly incarcerated. He was assaulted multiple times by both officers and inmates and spent significant time restricted to solitary confinement. After his release news of his experience was told in national magazines and on television talk shows. Kalief Browder was likely traumatized and debilitated by the torture which was inflicted upon him. He took his life almost two years to the day after his release from prison.

The death of Kalief Browder highlights many social issues often ignored, including suicide among Black males. Little is written and even less is said about the prevalence of completed suicide among Black males, despite the alarming rates of fatal self-harm completed by Black males every year. In order to reduce the frequency of completed suicide we must understand the factors which contribute to such behavior. Here are seven facts you need to know about suicide among African-American males.

Increasing Rates. Suicide rates for African-American males are increasing and have been for the past 50 years. Research by Ward and Collins revealed that for the past 50 years suicide rates increased by nearly 30% for Black American males.

Dying Young. The increase in completed suicide among Black males is primarily due to the large numbers of young Black males engaging in self-harm. Completed suicide is the third largest killer of adolescent Black males with rates continuing to climb. Even more horrifying, the rate of fatal self-harm among Black children ages 5-11 is on the rise.

Our Depression is Different. Risk factors for Black males can look different than traditional markers of mental health concerns. This is important as depression is often seen as the precursor to suicidal behavior. Furthermore, anger, irritability and engagement in violence can all be unsuspected symptoms of depression.

Racism is a Murderer. All people of color may experience the underbelly of racial oppression, however racism is said to be a significant factor in exacerbating emotional debilitation in Black males. Black males are at greater risks for poor mental health outcomes resulting from racial oppression. Rage, anger, frustration, bitterness, resentment, grief, and despair can all occur over time. These emotions can increase suicidal ideation and are thought to be precursors to mood related illnesses such as depression.

Risk of Suicide. Another reason for the increasing rate in completed suicide within this group is because Black men are exposed to high rates of every social risk factor of depression and suicide. This includes poverty, unemployment, poor education opportunities, medical disease, lack of health care, and systematic oppression. Moreover, current incarceration and imprisonment increase risk of suicide. Jennifer Gonnerman reported in The New Yorker that Kalief Browder attempted to kill himself several times while in confinement and once following his release from prison before finally taking his life.

No One Understands. Despite climbing rates in mental health concerns fueled by increases in fatal self-harm. Furthermore, these individuals are more likely to be misdiagnosed or disproportionately pathologized when seeking treatment. Some have mentioned that current criteria of depression and anxiety do not match the culturally nuanced manner in which mental health affects Black males. In my experience as a Clinical Psychologist I have found that men are less likely to report frequent crying or sadness and more often report feeling stressed, angry, or irritable. The failure of mental health practitioners to accurately diagnose depression no doubt contributes to reluctance among these individuals to seek treatment.

There Is Hope. Despite the challenges listed above, as a community we can all play a role in addressing the mental health crisis gripping Black males. Social support remains among the most important factors shielding Black men from suicidal behavior. African-American males who report close family ties, strong romantic relationships and close friendships are less likely to consider suicide. Additionally, religious conviction and participation in religious activities can also assist in curbing or preventing poor mental health. Reaching out and being responsive, attentive, and present for the Black males in your life may provide assistance. Most importantly, no one has to be alone in helping friends and loved ones through difficult times. If you are someone you know is struggling, recommending they seek mental health treatment might inspire him to seek treatment. Such feedback can be a life saver.

This article was originally published on Blackmentalhealthnet.com. Re-published here with permission.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.