“I’m either going to kill myself or someone is going to kill me,” was the last thing I told my mother before she finally decided to move from the neighborhood that had become my place of torment. Only 11-years-old and barely even in middle school, pleas to relocate had fell on deaf ears prior. It is not that my mother did not want to listen, but when one is caught up running from job-to-job, trying to make ends meet as a single-parent, it is hard to find the emotional capacity to deal with the traumas of children that seem so distant and inconsequential, compared to the constant struggle to put food on the table. She was just in the midst of running to another job when I made my declaration, but finally she stood still.
“Ok, baby,” she responded, fearful of the pain in my eyes, the hopelessness, “we are going to move.”
For the second time in my short life, my family made another cross-country journey and resettled in another state. Moves like that would become the norm for us, a few years on the East Coast, a few years down South. Florida one year. New Jersey the next. Texas another. Maybe my mother would accept a job that paid for her housing in Maryland? Or maybe we would invest our energies into Atlanta, Georgia where property was cheaper? We moved for new opportunities, better school districts and affordable housing. But on the day when I cornered my mother on her way to work, we moved because I had threatened to kill myself and my mother knew I meant it.
Since the 1990s, suicide rates among elementary-age black children have nearly doubled, according to a study published in the Journal of JAMA Pediatrics and I could have been a part of those statistics had my mother not made the move to safeguard my mental and physical well-being. The circumstances that would have led to my suicide were sadly comparably unextraordinary: single-parent household, school bullying, dangerous neighborhoods, developing too early, sexual harassment from men in my community– all experiences that far too many black children face with little to no support or guidance.
When a 30-year-old neighbor told the then 10-year-old me, “I would love to school you,” with a smirk on his face, while I was on my way walking to the grocery, I had no one to share my confusion, sadness and discomfort with. When a group of teenage girls jumped me for thinking I was better than them or alleging that I tried to steal one of their boyfriends, I put Bandaids and Neosporin on my own cuts and bruises. When adolescents appeared on my front door while my mother was at work doing a night shift and pelted rocks through my window and threatened to beat me up, neither my family or the police came to my aid, despite attempts to reach out for help. When a childhood friend died, I was offered practically no counseling. Physically, socially and psychologically I was left vulnerable and alone and that isolation lead me to believe the only thing that could make it all stop was literally ending my life.
On the surface, it would’ve been pretty hard to imagine the deep psychological conflict bubbling inside of me. I was always the outgoing child. The relatively mannerly child. The child with good grades, who teachers loved. I was the “good kid”. However, even that label does not protect children from committing suicide. And the failure to see or recognize the traumas Black children, including the “good kids”, endure that may lead them to make the decision to take their own lives is certainly is directly responsible for this unnecessary loss of life.
Trust, I get it. Resources are thin in the Black community. We have too many mothers, like my own, who are struggling to feed their children, provide them with housing and access to decent schools. But we must also make mental health awareness chief among the basic necessities of life, right alongside the need for physical well-being. It is easy to see when a child does not have he material trappings of a good and stable life. It is easy to feel obligated to buy a shoeless child a pair of shoes or give a child without food something to eat. When will we feel the obligation to safeguard the mental health of our children?
As suicide rates continue to climb, an answer to this question will become even more pertinent. The well-being of the Black community depends on the mental health of its children.