Suicide is never far from my mind. In 1983, when I was 21 and she was 48, my mother killed herself. It will always be the moment that divides my life into before and after.
Since then, I have been consumed by a desire to understand the phenomenon of death turned toward the self. I will read any news story that comes across my awareness that involves suicide, whether it’s about someone well known, like Kate Spade, or a local story about someone I’ve never heard of. And, although I am interested in the psychological detritus that convinces an individual to take their own life, it is the broad patterns of suicide that fascinate and trouble me most, especially as they intersect with race and gender.
According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, suicide rates in the U.S. increased by 40 percent between 1999 and 2016. In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides, and 84 percent of people who killed themselves were white.
“In 2016, 84 percent of people who killed themselves were white.”
Recent reports indicate that suicide rates are up for women. Specifically, suicide rates are on the rise for white women like my mother, despite the structural advantages they enjoy. The biggest change was among women in late middle age. “For females between the ages of 45 and 64, the suicide rate increased by 60 percent,” said Dr. Holly Hedegaard, a medical epidemiologist.
But the pattern is not the same for all women. Researchers have discovered something called the “suicide paradox,” in which black women are less likely to die by their own hand than white women are. The dual role of social networks and religion in black women’s lives may help protect against suicide. One study pointed to two additional factors that are protective. First, black women’s encounters with long-standing oppression appear to have helped them develop resilience. Second, black women are highly regarded within their support systems, so their levels of responsibility and commitment to others may help to protect them from suicide.
To be sure, whites have physical health advantages, because we get to skip all those life stressors associated with systemic racism. Housing and employment discrimination, daily micro-aggressions, and the biases of health care providers and systems erode health and chip away at life expectancy. However, despite the racial privilege that insulates them from those stressors, whites report poorer mental health than African-Americans. National data suggest that whites experience a higher number of psychiatric disorders over a lifetime than members of other racial groups. And, since the mid-1990s, reports of chronic pain and mental distress among middle-aged whites have increased.
It’s this last fact, about the increase in reports of chronic pain and mental distress among whites, that suggests an explanation for the rise in white women’s suicide rates.
Prescription drugs, including opioids, are more readily available in white communities than in communities of color. African-Americans, in particular, are routinely denied access to pain medication, while whites have ready access to it. For example, African-Americans are 34 percent less likely than whites to be prescribed opioids for back pain, abdominal pain and migraines, and 14 percent less likely to be prescribed such medications for pain from traumatic injuries or surgery. Pharmacies in poor, white neighborhoods are 54 times more likely than pharmacies in poor neighborhoods of color to have “adequate supplies” of opioids.
Given the easier access to prescription pain medicine for whites ― and the corollary restricted access to pain relief for African-Americans ― then, it is perhaps not surprising that rates of overdose death from prescription opioids are higher among whites than blacks. The rate of increase is shocking, however: Deaths of women from prescription opioids increased more than 400 percent between 1999 and 2010.
Princeton researcher Angus Deaton has said that “heavy drinking, overeating, social isolation, drugs and suicide are plausible outcomes of processes that have cumulatively undermined the meaning of life for White working-class people.” Those processes include globalization, the decline of unions and resulting downward mobility.
But these so-called “deaths of despair” among middle-aged white people may also be a response to the kind of psychic numbness required to trade one’s full humanity for the social standing conferred by whiteness. Maintaining the myth of whiteness and white superiority requires a certain amount of disassociation, including the ability to dehumanize entire groups of people.
White people in the United States are being forced to grapple with what it means to be white, and with the history of white supremacy. For many, the prospect of demographic predictions of a “white minority,” a two-term black president, the Black Lives Matter movement and the mere presence of immigrants were provocations that challenged the very essence of being white. For some, this discomfort transforms into white rage, as Carol Anderson argues. It may be that some deaths of despair, including suicide, are a form of white rage turned inward.
“It may be that some 'deaths of despair,' including suicide, are a form of white rage turned inward.”
As James Baldwin wrote in the essay “On Being White... and Other Lies,” “moral erosion has made it quite impossible for those who think of themselves as white in this country to have any moral authority at all ― privately, or publicly. The multitudinous bulk of them sit, stunned, before their TV sets, swallowing garbage that they know to be garbage, and ― in a profound and unconscious effort to justify this torpor that disguises a profound and bitter panic.”
Baldwin knew that there is a moral and material cost of maintaining whiteness, and for those who have bought into the “suicide cult” of whiteness, perhaps that cost is finally coming due.
With the sharp clarity of several decades of hindsight, I think now that my mother’s death of despair was a casualty of whiteness. The lie of whiteness holds out a promise: that being white will save you from social isolation and disconnection through materialism, individualism and the satisfaction of superiority. When the world changes, it burns off those false promises like a flame melting wax and what is left may not seem like enough to go on.
But there are always reasons to go on. White people can find them in connection, in community and in relationships that do not rely on the lie of whiteness. The paradox of whiteness is that it makes being white easier, but it corrodes one’s mental health. Upholding whiteness is deadly, for all of us.
Jessie Daniels is a professor at the City University of New York and the author of the forthcoming book Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.