I started writing this article when it was reported that singer/performer Fantasia Barrino attempted suicide in 2010. But the buzz of that event in our ever increasing pop culture and 140 character social media world was a fleeting moment to discuss a “taboo” which usually resides at the margins of daily life, especially for people of color. With Fantasia’s speedy recovery and return to the stage, the deeper aspects of this conversation quickly faded. But here it is again because it did not really fade. It is always with us, but just not always as public. We know this place. With the alleged suicide of Don Cornelius, the conduit of creativity for Soul Train, it is here for us all to see, grieve, and ask why.

I remember the first time suicide prompted me to ask the elusive question “why?” As a twelve-year old girl, I was lost when a childhood friend from my neighborhood and church, whom I affectionately referred to as “cousin,” took his own life at the young age of 16. He was a superstar athlete and popular at school. Naturally, I questioned why this happened. It was explained to me that it was an accident and “the gun went off.” But I remember arguing about it with kids and teachers at school who did not accept it as an accident. I determined they were lying. They had to be. What other explanation was there? And why would someone suggest that he would do this to himself? Confused, I stood before a packed church of 300-plus mourners, above the casket of my “cousin” and read his obituary. The faces of the crowd, young and old, looked about as confused as I was. Less of a question and more of an entangled announcement, we all silently asked “why.”

Emphasis on silence. There is a code of silence around the topic of suicide in our communities; and not just suicide, but mental health as a whole, ranging from severe depression and anxiety, to mental illness like schizophrenia. The root of such issues can vary, but no matter the source, it is happening everywhere. Although some groups are disparately affected more than others, according to the CDC, no group is absolved from suicide or mental health regardless of race, class, or gender. Therefore, it impacts us all.

Yet, Black folks, and other people of color, are not given permission to work through their crap. This permission is not given by themselves or their community. Instead, we are instructed to be strong, to get over it, to keep it pushin’, or in the words of the late Tupac Shakur, to “keep ya head up” because it will all be okay.

When I was an undergrad, feeling like my life was tearing at the seams, I shared with a few close family and friends that I was going to see the campus counselor. Their shocked response: “Is that necessary? There’s nothing really wrong with you. You’re alright. You’ll be fine.” I was not alright. I was not fine. And sometimes, many of us are not fine either.

We are expected and encouraged to suffer in silence and privately move on because it is considered weak to do otherwise. When Ron Artest was interviewed in 2010 after the L.A. Lakers won the championship, he thanked his psychiatrist on national television, shocking the sports world of fans and commentators alike by sharing his open mental health process: therapy.

  • http://www.cocoareport.com Cocoa Report

    I think people in general have a misconception about depression,suicide and other mental illnesses. I think sometimes in our community people think depression is a sign of being weak or having a “bad day” and often told to basically get over it. We were not raise to take it seriously and unfortunately that’s our approach to someone who may be suffering. There a lot of people suffering but afraid to speak up because of the negative comments they heard and that’s unfortunate.

    Also this topic makes people uncomfortable and people don’t know how to handle a person suffering with any type of mental illness. We do need to educate ourselves about this topic. I am firm believer in seeking any type of therapy when needed and telling people do the same.

  • CaliDreaming86

    I believe that only those who have experienced depression truly understand how it affects a person.

    I remember several years (I was 21 at the time) ago a woman approached me on the street while I was waiting at a bus stop and told me I looked sad and then tried to hand me one of those religious pamphlets. Her concern may have been genuine, but her trying to hand me a religious pamphlet made me feel peeved, because I am Agnostic.

    Around this same timeframe, I mentioned to an older coworker that I was stressed. Her response was, “What do you have to be stressed about?” I’ve also gotten this same sentiment from other people when stating that I am stressed. Their approach seems to be rooted in a belief that not having to struggle raising kids or being in enormous debt meant that one is living it up.

    One of my biggest peeves though are people who believe that a belief in ‘God’ or being ‘close to God’ would have helped those who have committed suicide or are suffering from depression. The notion that a suicide could have been prevented simply if that person had talked to someone about how they felt when there are so many people unwilling to listen. People too often are quick to invalidate the feelings of someone else if they are not their own. People who suffer from depression are told to stop being negative and/or told to stop complaining.

  • girlformerlyknownasgrace

    I love this topic and I believe that it is relevant in this day and age. Just because we have fewer avenues for discussing our issues does not make them non-existent. It becomes even more difficult when other black folk look at mental health as an “excuse” for handling personal business.

  • girlformerlyknownasgrace

    @cd86 it sounds like you have few people, if any at all to talk to about your depression. If that is the case, im sorry to hear that.

  • CaliDreaming86

    There aren’t even a few people. There are none.

  • lulu

    @ cd86 it sounds like the religious lady could sense something was wrong and was trying to help, like you were saying , also black people go thru alot, racism, society, we try to act like we are superwoman we can do it all, black women always talk about they are a bad b*&% or that b%^$% and men try to be mach, but life if full of ups and downs, joys and pain- when we ignore the pain or front like it don’t exist, it just builds up- that may be why some commit suicide or maybe they have a chemical imbalance, but on this mental health issue – the black community is in denial

  • girlformerlyknownasgrace

    Im genuenely sorry to here that. It must suck to feel like you cant validate your feelings with someone and i cant even imagine what that is like.

  • http://www.reflectionandreview.com S. Kat

    Thank you for this post. I’m glad you mentioned “Reed Between the Lines” as well. For all of the legitimate criticism that the show received, one of the best things about it is the potential it has to mitigate the stigma/taboo around therapy and mental health issues in our community.

  • http://pervertedalchemist.blogspot.com Perverted Alchemist

    Thanks to Clutuch for bringing up this topic again. It was discussed a few months back, but it was only talked about briefly. It’s kind of sad that this issue has come to light mostly due to the recent death of Don Cornelius (And I have to ask this…why does it take someone’s death to talk about a real issue???), but it needs to be discussed.

    Usually when something of this magnitude comes up, Black folks are quick to sweep it under the rug for some odd reason. That is something I have always wondered…

    I’ll be back later to weigh in on this issue when I have more time to discuss it.

  • jamesfrmphilly

    “There aren’t even a few people. There are none”

    there are trained professionals in most communities.

  • jamesfrmphilly

    many in the black community suffer from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.
    it is promoted by the harsh conditions that we live under. mental illness explains much of the bad behavior that we see among us. we need to address it.

  • LemonNLime

    This article really speaks to me especially because I am going to a therapist for the first time this afternoon. It is something that I have thought about doing for a while. My mom and granmother don’t really see a point but it was my younger sister who really encouraged me to look into it. For me, 2012 is about getting healthy both physically and mentally.

  • http://www.method2hermadness.blogspot.com girlformerlyknownasgrace

    @LemonNLime, Its awesome that you’re seeking and getting the support you need!

  • http://weekinparadise.wordpress.com/ natural.is.me

    I hate, hate, hate when people say oh you’re feeling bad then pray.

    To me it’s like seeing your arm is dangling off and you need to go to the hospital but instead you just pray. Your mind needs more than words out of a book, your mentality needs assistance at times. Accept that. I proudly deal with depression and let any and everyone know if you come round me with that prayer mess we ain’t friends. It’s more than a prayer to get through days. Trust.

  • Lady P

    If we must take one step at a time, we must continue to address this topic. Almost 20 years later, our minds are still plagued with the question “why.” Back in college, the guy I was dating at the time line brother committed suicide. We were completely devastated along with the entire campus. NO problems surrounded him that we were aware of. Just the night before we were all hanging out drinking, talking, and laughing just having a blast. This young man was in one of the most popular fraternities on campus and very intelligent. Actually, he was the “life of the party”. If it wasn’t for the double-barreled rifle and the forensic details, we would have fought until the end to prove it was murder instead. For me, this incident really taught me to look and listen. This may or may not help. Nevertheless, I still hope by paying attention to body language, unspoken words, or a hint in my loved one eyes this will tell me something which they aren’t verbally speaking. I am often asked by my son, “Why are you looking at me?” My response is because I want to know if you are alright. He isn’t aware of this, but I can honestly tell when he lies from the motions of his eyes. With articles such as these and with continued dialogue, hopefully we can learn to tackle depression, suicide and other mental illnesses with professional help.

  • jamesfrmphilly

    @LnL : good luck and peace be with you

  • jamesfrmphilly

    black people have a lot of righteous anger. we are treated badly. we have been carefully taught to suppress the anger. this suppressed anger and anger that has been turned inward is the root of so many of our dysfunctions. we vent on one another because that is a lot safer than venting on the white man. we self destruct. we need to learn how to control our anger and vent it onto the ones who oppress us all. that is liberating.

  • QofThecastle

    People of Color can be a bit primitive when it comes to mental illness. If they dont want you to run to the church and cast out the spirits they will allow you to self medicate with substances. Nothing wrong with going to the doctor to speak to someone. However, we need health insurance in order to do that.

    We need to rid our vocabulary of words like crazy. A disease can affect your brain the same way it can affect your liver or pancreas.

  • Bosslady

    Hi CaliDreaming86, to clarify, do you suffer from stress of depression? You mentioned both as if they are the same, two very different things? Also do you want to change/get over your depression? I emphasize as I to had suffered from depression for some years, but the general feel I get from 99% of your posts on here is that you are content in your state. You are very vocal about how much you hate your life, however you have to decide to start the process of recovery. Most won’t understand how you feel if they haven’t been there, but as jamesfrmphilly said there are trained professionals who can help. Clutch appears to be your place to vent about your every frustration with life, but if indeed you are suffering from depression, you should seek professional help.

  • Tiffany

    I personally know the dangers of mental health issues and depression specifically. As someone who suffers from it and strongly believe other family members do to, but refuse to seek help for it, I see first hand how we “medicate” with food and other substances. I strongly believe there is more than a superficial link between the obesity and disease epidemic in our community and the occurrence of untreated depression and other mental health issues. Health is not just mental or physical and in order to have health individuals and communities we need to recognize there needs to be a holistic approach. Our physical health will never get better unless we take care of our mind, body, and soul as one.

  • http://cupofjo-jo.blogspot.com bk chick

    This may be a stretch here but based on some research religiosity in the black community has a lot to do with the silence on mental health. Many times, church IS the therapist but in many cases it’s not enough and the religion helps to make disorders like schizophrenia taboo, since it’s origin more scientific than emotional.

    As a person who works in the mental health profession you’d be surprised how many minorities go to therapy. But I find that its usually for stereotypical minority illnesses such as alcohol and drug abuse and its comorbidity with depression, bipolar, etc. In other many cases clinical therapy is expensive and you usually see a racial disparity in this area. But, this is just from personal experience (some research as well). I’d have to look into the statistics more…

  • jamesfrmphilly

    you are seeing the same thing that i see…..

  • jamesfrmphilly

    cosign…..

  • apple

    i was recommended at age 9, age 15 and finally at age 18 to seek therapy by school officials and my mother completely wanted me to have no part in it,yelled at me, told me i wasn’t crazy or flushed my antidepressants.. now i can’t afford to get help.. and its one of my biggest regrets that i have …now i do it alone because i can’t afford help or no one wants to believes me…those who suffer, suffer alone.

  • Faye

    Thank you, Ms. Barabin for writing this article.

    The hardest part, thus far, of my recovery process is coping with the isolation of having a mental health disability. I knew for years that I needed to seek professional help, but until I entered university that was not an option for me due to financial barriers. An older friend, who is also a woman of colour, recommended that I register with the counselling services on campus. It completely changed my life.

    Now, I have a diagnosis, I’m taking medication to help manage symptoms, and will soon begin therapy with a specialized professional outside of my school community (covered by bursaries). It’s been over a year since i’ve been diagnosed with PTSD caused by family related trauma & when my mother isn’t denying that something is wrong, she is using my disability to undermine my judgement & insult me. My father was more supportive when i divulged this information, but he generally acts as if everything is fine. I’ve only recently told my best friend b/c I was afraid she would react the same way my mother did. However, she has been supportive in what ways she can and it’s made a difference.

    I am essentially living a double life: one in which i am a “normal” 19 year-old with dealing the “normal” stressors of university life versus the exhausted & weary-eyed young woman attempting to rebuild her life while making sense of the pieces. The stigma of mental illness ensures that the chaos of juggling medication, school work, campus life & the symptoms of my disability never overlaps into the former.

    There is an urgent need to eradicate this stigma from our communities. Even when people take the courageous, albeit frightening, step to seek help, the detachment one feels from their loved ones & community creates stress that could likely hinder the recovery process.

    I’m going to begin with educating my family on mental health issues & removing the stigma from within my home so that I can get the support I need. I’m hoping that with time & awareness, more people can feel safe about living with mental health issues. It’s so, so painful living in a world that continuously renders you invisible, never mind coping with the other (interrelated) oppressions of being a woman/man of colour in this society. It DOES happen to us too, and it’s time folks started to address what affects so many people behind closed doors.

    So, thank you, Alexandria for this wonderful, well-thought out piece.

  • Faye

    I’d also like to add that not everyone has the opportunity or means to obtain help for their mental health issues, which further isolates individuals. Mental health services should be considered “medically necessary”. Our society grossly underestimates the importance of mental health.

  • Mel

    This article definitely hit home for me. Almost a year ago my mom was diagnosed with a mental illness, and it’s been one of the hardest situations I’ve ever had to deal with.

    I remember a month before ish really hit the fan, my mom would call me everyday (Im away at school) and she would basically vent about her job & how stressed she was. At the time none of my family members knew how serious the problem was because although she would be upset, she still remained optimistic and had good spirits about everything. Then when I came home for spring break, she had a complete meltdown to the point where her mind basically started to slip away and she couldnt even talk in complete sentences. It eventually resulted in us call 911 & they took her on a 5150.

    Education is so important because the warning signs were in our face all along, but since none of my family had any knowledge on mental illness we didnt know how to help my mom until it was really bad. Education is also really important because the most challenging part of this whole situation is getting my mom to accept that she has a mental illness. My mom told me that when she had her meltdown she knew something was wrong with her but she thought she could beat it on her own because she didnt want people judging her or treating her differently.

    Today my mom is doing much better & she has a few episodes every now & then. It’s something my family is still adjusting to, but our bond is stronger than ever now. I just want to encourage people to really educate themselves on mental illness and dont brush people away when they’re stressed. Stress is very healthy, but when it becomes a chronic issue dont be afraid to seek help or let people know whats really going on.

  • Whatever

    +1

  • Whatever

    “Health is not just mental or physical and in order to have health individuals and communities we need to recognize there needs to be a holistic approach. Our physical health will never get better unless we take care of our mind, body, and soul as one.”

    Tiffany, I agree.

  • CaliDreaming86

    Bosslady:

    Chronic stress is one of the many sources of my depression, which is why I mentioned them both. Of course I want to get over my depression, but if I seem content with my current state, it’s because to a certain extent I have come to accept that perhaps the odds of me not feeling the way I do is implausible. It’s hard to explain in detail really. There are ALWAYS obstacles in my way. Nothing good ever happens to me. Things that do happen to me never have an accompanying explanation. Most days I feel indifferent while others I do not understand what the point of all of this (life) is. There are days where I will feel motivated for all of five minutes. The ability for me to be excited about anything is pretty much nonexistent at this point.

    You know, there is actually a term I learned a few years ago that describes me very well. It’s called Dysthymia. I am no doctor, but I think I may suffer from Avoidant Personality Disorder, too.

    That’s as much as I can tell you. I wouldn’t want someone to throw this in my face later…

  • jamesfrmphilly

    you are not alone as long as i am around.
    i know there is a way for you to get help in your community.
    look around you.

  • Mochacashmere

    This is so very true. I suffer from depression and I am in therapy to learn to cope with my life’s issues; however, I wouldn’t be able to if it weren’t for my health insurance and even with that I still have to pay a good amount out of pocket to cover what my health insurance won’t pay. The government should earmark tax dollars to go toward mental health for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

  • jamesfrmphilly

    in philly there are community mental health centers where you can get some help.
    i’m thinking there must be places in other major cities.
    feeling isolated and alone is not a good thing.
    reach out.

  • jamesfrmphilly

    feeling isolated and alone is very dangerous!
    do not let yourself feel isolated!
    reach out where ever you are.
    there may well be some help.

  • http://www.method2hermadness.blogspot.com girlformerlyknownasgrace

    @CD86, well you do a good job of explaining yourself, and that in and of itself takes courage. And Im glad you came back to explain your point of view further. :)

  • Faye

    Mochacashmere,

    I agree; there needs to be some sort of reform to the health care system that takes into consideration that many people cannot afford mental health services. Even if one wants to get better, the cost of working with a professional to recover is a barrier that tells people to deal with it themselves. You are very fortunate to have insurance, as I am fortunate to have access to free counselling, but people who have less or no benefits are out of luck. This needs to change.

    James,

    Although community mental health services are helpful where people wouldn’t otherwise have access to costly services, they generally have limited resources & can only help so many people. Generally, these centres have a set number of sessions for which they can see a client & the waiting lists are very long. Similarly, drop-in sessions are helpful in crisis situations, but for long-term recovery, it’s ideal to have access to more stable/regular care. Again, it’s truly a privilege to have professional help, which is a damn shame. The health care system as well as the social stigma associated with mental illness make it incredibly hard not to feel isolated, i’m afraid.

  • Jinx Moneypenny

    Since 2007, when I found myself extremely hurt and unnerved when a cousin committed suicide after a lifetime of crippling mental illness the urge to know more and learn more has been at the forefront of my mind.

    Praying is not enough. Trying to seek help from standoffish and judgemental family members is not enough.

    Seek professionals and support groups.

  • Amber R.

    Wow! I have never heard someone else say and feel exactly how I feel. I would say I have dysthymia; I’ve been diagnosed with mild depression and generalized anxiety disorder after I had a pretty serious depressive episode. It’s always so easy for other people to tell you to get help or get over it when they don’t understand how draining it all is.

  • http://www.poshmiss.com www.PoshMiss.com

    Women we have to ensure our physical, spiritual, and mental health is balanced. Women are dying younger than men bc we allow these three areas to go out of whack and untreated. Take time to take care of yourself.

  • chanela

    its kinda like how when black kids hurt themselves or have horrible stomach aches and their parents’ response usually isn’t “lets go to the hospital to make sure you’re okay”. it’s ” take a nap”

  • CD86

    That’s not even the half of it, Grace.

    You are so right, Amber R. Even the most simple task can be draining.

  • Jazz

    Having a mother diagnosed with manic depression/bipolar disorder I understand the horrors of mental illness all to well. There were times when she’s attempted to take her own life. It consumes not only that person but the family as well. It just as serious if not worst sometimes than a physical condition. For years I was angered at my mom for it, and even embarassed growing up. I just didnt understand why she couldn’t just pull herself out of it sometimes until i suffered from my own bout of depression after a reaction from a medication I was taking. My short lived experience with it was dreadful and something I never want to experience again. I vowed to be more understanding to my mothers ilness and help in every way that I could.

    Mental illness in the black community is all too real, we all joke as having a cousin or family member that is a little “touched” or “tap” but we need to give these family members the help that they need and stop brushing it under the rug. Just going to church is NOT the answer, which we as a race often encourage, there needs to be professional help and resources. Also the worst thing that you can do to these family members with these mental illnesses is criticize them or brush their situation off as “not being that serious” , often times that is what leads them to suicide because they feel no one understands.

  • jamesfrmphilly

    depression is often anger that is turned inward rather than vented outward.
    there is an entire industry devoted to treatment. if you reach out there should be help.

  • Shirl

    Off and on I’ve been going through terrible bouts of depression I didn’t realize until a moment ago that that’s what it is. There is this overwhelming sense of doom. It’s so debilitating that I can’t leave my bed. It comes in waves is the best that I can explain it. One moment I feel fine and the next… I have also started having panic attacks. I can’t for the life of me figure out why this is happening. I’ve never had issues with mental illness. Can you be stressed and not know it? It seems like this just came out of the blue

  • CaliDreaming86

    “Depression is often anger that is turned inward”

    LOL! I have heard this phrase before and I think it is absolute bullshit.

  • OSHH

    As someone who was diagnosed in my teen years as clinically depressed, due to being the child of an alcoholic, and being verbally, mentally, and sexually abused. I survived because I did seek treatment but more than that, I made a decision @ 17 years old, *nod to Bosslady* that I was not going to be defeated by my childhood traumas and I was not going to be robbed of my joy and vigor for living.
    Everyone has obstacles, you overcome some and then up pop more. thats a part of life, they never go away, but it’s all in how you learn to cope and roll with the punches, the peaks and valleys of life.
    I still have occasional bouts, but I choose not to stay in that space. Instead I focus on the good things and try to have a heart of gratitude for what I am blessed with, and try to see myself where and feeling how I want to be.
    Prayer, and my relationshipo with GOD has helped me tremendously, to say it hasn;t would be a lie, but often times people need professional help in addition to..
    Physical activities, like walking outdoors and going to gym have been ways of coping for me, as well as having a support system where I can vent, I don’t have alot of friends but the few I have are gold. It helps alot to know that you are not alone and things including with your outlook on life can change for the better. You have to make the decision though and do your part in seeking treatment and finding healthy ways to cope and be.

  • OSHH

    I started having panic attacks soon after my Granma passed, out of the blue.
    In my case I think it was due to the aniexty and grief I was dealing with from losing the person I was closest to in the whole world. By acknowledging the magnitude of such a great loss, and going through the grieving process,with time, prayer, and a determined faith. I got through that period too.
    I think panic attacks are brought on by anxiety unchecked.

  • Bosslady

    CaliDreaming86, have you sort professional attention? I am not being rude or sarcastic (as I said, I’ve have been in your shoes before, though I don’t think my depression was to your extent), but I really think you should speak to someone instead of just self-diagnosing online.

  • CaliDreaming86

    I am not working right now and am on unemployment, so I cannot afford professional help right now.

    Once, I did have a session with a woman when I had health insurance, but I didn’t like her .

  • Cecily

    calidreaming86, i hope you have siblings or friends around you that you can turn to. i have been where you are…and what got me through it was my sister and my best friend, both of whom are extremely close to me, know me inside out, and are always honest with me but willing to listen and care.

    You need those people.

    As to seeing someone- don’t be discouraged by one professional who wasn’t perhaps helpful. when you find someone good, someone you click with, you will really REALLY reap the rewards. I understand you are unemployed, but if there is ANY way you can see someone, i would attempt it again.

    I hated the first psychologist I saw. The second has been incredible.

    most of all, you should know that there are people who are in the EXACT same position as you. more people than you think,. I’ve been there…and you WILL get through it. You just need the support system around you.

  • CaliDreaming86

    Cecily:

    I do have siblings, but they wouldn’t be of any help to me. My sister and I do not share a close relationship and my half-brother is 14 years younger than me. I don’t have any friends, only acquaintances.

    I am sure that there are people in the same exact position that I am in, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t mean that in a smart ass way either. It’s just that empathy and sympathy are not easy for me to feel.

  • girlformerlyknownasgrace

    Well im glad you’re here – on this website i mean. I know it doesnt sound like much, but since you dont have access to mental health professionals for financial or other reasons and you feel you cant reach out to those around you know that you can come here to vent, speak etc. I know it isnt much and online avatars are in NO way a substitute for caring people and support groups in the physical. But it is something, and please know that all these people are here to support you- if support means hearing your opinion, venting, talking with people on here who have already stated they have gone through depression on here, or if/when you ever decide to seek some type of support outside this online community.

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