May 05, 2022

The Suicide that Wasn’t

From the Lived Experience

Why do some suicides seem to happen so “fast?” That question underscores many of the complexities, nuances, and possible solutions for a growing health crisis. As a Black American, I am driven to write about this phenomenon through the lens of people like me.

My Story

Invisibility. Invisible problems. In reality, the progression to the final act was not fast. The problems had been there for years. Between 1992 and 2001 I published 10 books, traveled nationally, and went from adjunct instructor to tenure-track assistant professor. I did that all while having clinical depression.

Society sees the outside. When we get the awards, we get pats on the back.  Having the class privilege of professional parents, I was socialized to “behave,” so to most eyes, I was the good boy from a good family. 

No one could see the insomnia. My upper middle class support network made sure that I always lived in reasonably safe neighborhoods. I had a car. I wore the right clothes. I could ‘adjust’ to something like inadequate sleep because I had years of grooming and training in how to navigate higher education spaces.

At the age of 55, I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, unspecified ADHD, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. A lightbulb went off, I had been dealing with, adjusting to, and coping with these disorders my whole life, without knowing I had them.

As with a smoker who seems to be just fine for many years, one day, the poison caught up. But for me, the mask was still there. Due to my social class position, a year in and out of outpatient and inpatient drug rehab and psychiatric treatment was deemed “a sabbatical.” With the exception of a few people directly close to me, the world thought I was just away writing a book.

The challenging pattern continued for years, until it didn’t. A combination of recovery programs, a structured church environment, and counseling allowed me to stabilize. In recent years, I benefited from new tools and approaches due to the diagnoses. I am now in autism support groups. My employers get my Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)  letter stating accommodations to be made, when necessary.  I adjust how I approach my  day and advocate for breaks–nervous system resets, whether it be at a picnic, shopping with family, Zoom meetings, or at the theater.

Therein lies the point of this article. Somewhere near you, right now, there is a “well supported” person who is suffering. But like the smoker who can go on for years because he is strong otherwise, one day the system will collapse. What backup is there when that day comes? I like the coping mechanisms described in this article by Allyson Byers. They reduce the risk of that day ever arriving.  

Many masks exist. Well meaning. Unintentional. But masks nonetheless. We all know these stories…a football player falls off of a roof at a drunken party and breaks several bones. But he had football going for him in the first place. He goes to sports rehab and is back on the field in several months. What did we miss? He has demonstrated self-medicating and self destructive behavior. He was in emotional pain long before that party. But everyone saw an “accident.” They saw 20-something energy. They did not see the invisible, the well-hidden truths. When he became suicidal later, people were shocked. And of course, “he had such good grades.”

So here I am. The suicide that could have happened, but did not. At my lowest point, the people in my life showed me that I was still worth something. Crippling and fatal despair never grabbed a foothold. I was a lucky one.

Suicide in Black Americans

That reflection opens the door to examining the larger circumstances within my affinity group. Suicide is a tragic and complicated phenomenon the African American community.

In 2017, the rate of suicide of Black people in California was less than half the rate of white people. Statistics like these long contributed to the account of the white phenomenon of suicide. Invisibility rears its ugly head once again.  This New York Times article helps to explain these numbers, challenges in interpretation and protective factors. And this recent article after some high profile black suicide losses highlights additional insights and misconceptions.

For a long time suicide rates in the Black community were supposedly a lot lower than in the general public, according to a report to Congress from The Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, Chaired by Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman. These misconceptions are also detailed in the TIME article, What We Misunderstand About Suicide and Black Americans

Further examination paints a much more dire and serious picture. The 2019 Congressional Black Caucus report says that death by suicide among Black youth is rising faster than any other racial group. Suicide ranked as the third leading cause of death in Black men from ages 15-24 and Black men are four times more likely to die by suicide than Black women.

Overall, much can be learned from differing rates of suicide among groups. For example, “because of pervasive racism, Black Americans experience substantial stress, fewer opportunities for advancement and more threats to well-being,” writes Austin Frakt in the New York Times. “These negative experiences can degrade mental and physical health, as well as limit education, employment and income — all of which can increase suicide risk. Unemployment, which is higher for Black Americans than white Americans, is itself a source of stress.”

Michael A. Lindsey of New York University worked on a study which showed that highschool suicide attempts for Whites  Latinos and Asians decreased from 1991 to 2017. However, in this time period the number of attempts by Blacks has increased substantially — by 73%.

“Over the last decade, suicide rates in the United States have increased dramatically among racial and ethnic minorities, and Black Americans in particular,” writes Rheeda Walker, professor of psychology and director of the University of Houston’s Culture, Risk and Resilience Lab. “Suicide deaths occur across the lifespan and have increased for Black youth, but the highest rate of death is among Black Americans aged 25-34 years of age.”

Bullying, trauma and racial discrimination are clear risk factors for Black youth. However, research shows that those who attempt suicide are less likely to have been diagnosed with a mental illness, perhaps due to reduced access to mental health care.

“What can I do?” many ask. Experts suggest parents should also start talking to children, as early as possible, about their feelings and how to process them. For further insights, watch more stories on the rise of Black youth suicide here: “A Different Cry.”  As with other public health problems, such as drunk driving, we need to continue bringing these conversations into the public arena. Historically marginalized populations are especially vulnerable, but we have noticed a rise in African American suicides from middle class and wealthy families also. Unique experiences must be put at the front of the discussion. Awareness, education and support are the key.

Moving Forward

When I feel completely and utterly alone, I push myself to reach out. If I don’t feel like talking aloud, I use Facebook messenger, email, text, prayer, and even walking at night and talking to the stars. There is something about the expanse of the universe, be it through the world wide web or a brilliant night sky, that reminds me that I am worthwhile and part of something larger.  It reminds me that I’m not alone, and that I (and the choices that I make) matter to someone. This is comforting.

I remember that when in a depressed state, I’m not in a position to make permanent decisions, especially when there’s no one there to offer perspective. When it feels impossible to focus on anything other than what makes me angry or sad, I find a distraction. My journey has taught me that no matter what the voice of depression says, I don’t have to believe it. When mental anguish seeks to overwhelm me, my combination of a stable church group; supportive friends; therapy; a family-focus; behavior modifications; support groups, taking in uplifting art, music and media; allowing myself to “not be productive” all the time; positive self-talk; intermittent fasting, and overall self-acceptance always finds me stronger than I thought I was, yesterday, or even a few minutes earlier. Finally, I forgive others and I forgive myself. The future is bright. If I can come this far, only greater things can lie ahead. 

The author, who prefers to remain anonymous, is an Ivy League graduate and current university  instructor. He has published a dozen books and hundreds of articles. He has been happily married for 20 years and is the loving father of three daughters.