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TW: This article contains graphic details about suicidal depression and mental illness. To seek a culturally competent mental health professional, call the Black Mental Health Alliance at 410 338-2642.
In just a few weeks’ time we have lost, Ian Alexander, Jr. (26) and former Miss America (2019) Cheslie Kryst (30), both to suicide.
For many, it remains difficult to understand why someone might take his or her own life. We might think, “was it really that bad?” Suicide is complicated, painful, awful, tragic, and often unexpected.
The grief of family and friends when someone they love commits suicide never ends because there are so many unanswered questions. When individuals choose to take their own lives, we can assume that they were in significant emotional, devastating pain that might be unimaginable to the people around them.
Suicide and Depression
We often associate suicide with depression for good reasons. Many who attempt and commit suicide are depressed, but we have to keep in mind that it is not a simple equation (depression = suicide). Many human beings have thought about taking their own lives at some point.
Sometimes it is a fleeting thought that comes up when we are feeling down. Other times the thoughts hang around for longer periods of time.
When someone famous we admire dies by suicide or if there is a suicide in our own families, individual risk of suicide can increase.
Anyone can struggle with mental illness, suicidal thoughts
Clinical depression is not just “the blues.” It impacts the sufferer physically, emotionally, cognitively (thoughts), psychologically, and physiologically. Specific neurotransmitters in the brain significantly contribute to depression. Depression often runs in families and can be inherited, but life factors such as job or relationship loss, grief, the constant grind of racism and discrimination, and feeling like one cannot progress in life all contribute to feelings of depression. One of the biggest contributing factors to depression is a person feeling like he or she does not have purpose or meaning.
People who consider suicide are not necessarily “mentally ill.” Some may struggle with severe mental health challenges, but all have in common the strong desire to escape pain. When death is seen as less painful than living and when someone is in that much pain, they absolutely lose hope and feel helpless that things will get better. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are strong predictors of suicidal thoughts and behavior.
What is Suicidal Tunnel Vision & What Contributes to It?
Mental health professionals are aware of the powerful cognitive processes at play in depression. Some include thoughts such as: I am an absolute failure. No one loves me. Everyone thinks I am stupid. I will never be worth anything. This will never get better. These extraordinarily painful thoughts are commonplace for those who struggle with depression. The brain is producing these thoughts and the individual is haunted by them. Without intervention, for many, they get worse and the person starts to feel that this is who they are. When someone is strongly considering suicide, they develop tunnel vision and these thoughts and feelings of despair overtake them. They really feel as if they would be better off not being in the world, no matter how much others love them, how successful they are, and how many talents they have. They cannot see anything positive about themselves in these dark moments.
Black Families: We Don’t Talk About it Much
According to the CDC, in 2019, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death overall in the US. In 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Black Americans ages 15-24. Meanwhile, the death rate from suicide for Black men was four times greater than for Black women in 2018. These tragic numbers cannot be ignored. What can be done? We have to talk about depression and normalize its existence. One in five adults suffer from a mental health condition. It’s not uncommon for individuals to cope with feelings of depression through substance use, risky behavior, social isolation, and self-harm. Some of these methods might even be considered passive forms of suicide.
Culturally, many of our families do not often talk about mental health. Our “keep it moving” philosophy has been helpful in coping with painful aspects of racism and discrimination, but telling someone hurting to “keep it moving” is emotionally invalidating. Black families often socialize the view that counseling is for white people (see my previous article entitled Counseling is for Black People Too) and that having a strong spirituality should erase feelings of depression. Having a strong spiritual sense can certainly help someone hurting. Yet, we have to recognize that depression is a real thing and untreated depression can have serious consequences.
Don’t just “keep it moving”
As an African American psychologist, I’m often torn. I want us to talk about mental health in our communities and understand that suffering from depression is a serious issue. I want us to understand there are effective treatments that can help alleviate depression. We shouldn’t judge one another for struggling psychologically nor invalidate one another by giving the misplaced advice that “you gotta keep it moving.”
This advice sends the message that if you cannot cope, something is wrong with you, though it is often well-intentioned. Trauma sufferers tend to experience high rates of depression as well, especially as they re-live traumatizing events in ways they cannot control. African Americans have higher rates of trauma than European Americans.
We need to view the untimely, tragic deaths of Ian Alexander, Jr. and Cheslie Kryst with compassion and empathy and commit ourselves to having a better understanding of mental health issues overall and depression specifically. Whether you know it or not, you do know someone suffering from depression. We all do. Maybe it is us. Understanding the resources and treatments available for depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as normalizing the conversation about mental wellness is critical to decreasing the unfair stigma for those who struggle with mental illness.