Many individuals are unaware of the seriousness of suicide in the African American community, especially in regards to African American males. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among African Americans ages 15-24. Furthermore, this population has had the highest increase in suicide risk across all ages groups in the United States since the 1970’s. In regards to African American males, 81% of completed suicides in 2005 were males. The rates of male suicide in 2005 were almost 7 times higher than for African American females. Additionally, 50% of all African American suicides were by firearm. As you read these statistics, the natural questions that you may be wondering are, “how did this happen and what can we do about it.” This post will seek to address these questions by exploring the factors that have contributed to the epidemic of suicidal behavior in African American males as well as outlining culturally relevant strategies that can be implemented at the personal and family/friend level.
African American males and suicidal behavior is an extremely understudied area. The limited research in this area translates into the ineffective assessment, intervention, and prevention of suicidal behavior and suicidal ideation in African American males. Part of the reason for this lack of research stems from a commonly held belief by both the African American community and the dominant culture that suicide is “a White thing.” However, as the previous statistics note, suicide is becoming more and more of a serious issue for Black males. Missing from this dialogue in the literature is the idea that suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior look different in regards to their causes which will subsequently influence how you address these issues.
Men in America are expected to project characteristics of strength, individuality, autonomy, dominance, stoicism, and physical aggression. For Black males identifying with and fulfilling these roles has been a challenge that often times they have been unable to meet. One explanation may be that Black males often times receive conflicted messages about Black masculinity from mainstream society and the Black community. On one hand, in mainstream society, Black males are often portrayed in a negative light (i.e. overly aggressive, sexually promiscuous, lazy, unmotivated). However, in the Black community, Black men are expected to live up to the three P’s: Priest, Provider, and Protector. Depression, in Black males may stem from this conflict in the form of a failed attempt to reconcile these two images/ views into one successful individual. This failed attempt is further compounded by the fact that in general men are more likely to rely on themselves, to withdraw socially, and try to talk themselves out of feeling depressed. So what has happened is that we have a number of Black males (especially between the ages of 18-24) who due to societal limitations in regards to finances and education are unable to fulfill the expectations bestowed upon them. This causes these individuals to experience a chronic feeling of silent frustration. I believe that this trend is most evident in the increase in the number of suicides among Black males. Central to this phenomenon is the experience of racial self-hatred.
The research literature has suggested that the development of a Black identity serves the functions of providing protection against psychological injury, achieving meaning in one’s definition of Black and developing a multicultural perspective that serves as a bridge between one’s Blackness and the greater community. Black males that endorse Self-Hatred racial attitudes have not achieved these attitudes. Instead, these individuals have developed an intense Black self-hatred that stems from the incorporation of negative stereotypes. Furthermore, the experience of racial self-hatred significantly influenced their experience of psychological distress. This psychological distress contributes significantly to the experience of depressive symptoms which can lead to feelings of hopelessness and suicidal ideation.
So where do we go from here? It appears that there are a number of factors that have contributed to suicidal behavior and suicidal ideation in African American males. First, there has been a limited amount of research to investigate culturally appropriate suicide assessment measures, interventions, and preventative strategies. Secondly, the stigma surrounding suicide in the Black community has caused it to remain an unspoken topic that has be perpetuated by the dominate cultures belief that suicidal behavior is negligible in this community. Lastly, the racial identity of African American males when underdeveloped can contribute to the experience of hopelessness and frustration and an ineffective buffer against depressive symptoms. I would like to propose a couple of suggestions.
First, in regards to disclosing feelings of suicide, African Americans often time indicate moral objections, survival, and coping beliefs as reasons not to follow through with a suicide attempt. Present within these reasons are spiritual undertones, the absence of self-hatred racial attitudes, and a belief in the resiliency that has been supported by a strong network of family and friends. It is important to assess for and cultivate these reasons for living in Black males who have expressed feelings of hopelessness. Secondly, as a community, we must seek to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Until we have an honest conversation about mental health and actively seek out ways to intervene and prevent, we will continue to be plagued by the senseless deaths of our African American men at their own hands and at the hands of other African American males. Mental health, just like physical health isn’t something that prayer only can fix. If someone has cancer you wouldn’t tell them to just pray about. Hopefully, you would also recommend that they seek out a medical doctor. This same concept should parallel our intervention strategies for mental health issues. Additionally, considering the fact that depressive symptoms and feelings of hopelessness can stem from the endorsement of self-hatred attitudes, as a community, we must develop ways to increase our young Brothers awareness of the potential that they have because of the people they come from. By instilling this sense of pride, we can help our young Brothers reconcile the negative stereotypes they see in the media, with the potentially negative influence they may experience with their peer groups, by creating a positive dissonance with the message “You are important and capable of doing great things.”