A public health crisis is brewing beneath the pandemic. And once again, the most vulnerable are most susceptible to the imprint of this health emergency. In 2019, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 34. And this was before the pandemic exacerbated, for many, feelings of loneliness, exhaustion, and financial and circumstantial-related anxieties.
At Hurdle, the digital mental health company I founded in 2018, my research team and I make a point to peel back the surface of public health concerns to dig into their specific impact on BIPOC populations. We do this so that we might continue to inform the Hurdle Cultural Responsiveness Training (HCRT™), which equips our mental health professionals with the skills needed to effectively address issues of race, ethnicity, class, and culture in therapy. In the words of American rapper and activist Killer Mike, more often than not, these health crises affect marginalized communities “first and worst.” Sadly, Hurdle’s research proves once again that this is the case when we look at recent suicide studies from the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research and The University of Toledo. Our children and youth are especially at risk:
Several years ago, when I worked with my researchers to shed light on another dark area of public health — racism’s impact on the mental health of black men — I learned a valuable lesson: darkness can be a conduit for light. The weight of the research that we uncover often forces us to be still, to reflect on the narrative beneath the numbers. In these still moments of reflection, we are able to collectively acknowledge the socio-political and even spiritual war that rages in and around these vulnerable communities of color. It is then, that we can address the issues, one by one, that are determining the destiny of these communities’ joy. For example, among black populations, there is a unique pattern in suicide rates that speaks to the narrative behind the numbers. Suicide rates peak during adolescence and young adulthood in the black community, then decline. This is a different pattern than is seen in the overall U.S. population, where suicide rates peak in midlife. In my forthcoming book of essays, The Joy for the Disinherited, I unpack this troubling reality:
Even at five years old, Black children in America can feel the weight of the world resting squarely on their shoulders. We are children when the country makes its first demand of us: Prove you belong here. And since we are busy proving our worth to the world, there’s little time and space to try on an identity of our own design. We are denied the chance to absorb the power that comes from staking a claim in who we want to be and instead are told who to be. If we are lucky, later in life we get a second chance to eject the identity requirements foisted upon us. But by then, the stakes are higher. Choosing the wrong identity could cost you everything.
— Excerpt from essay Son of Little Rock in The Joy for the Disinherited
The theme for this year’s Suicide Prevention Month — #BeThe1ToAsk — speaks to the other lesson I have learned in the course of my work studying the mental health of BIPOC populations: Sharing our stories of struggle and joy can loosen the hold that these crises have on our communities. To be clear, systems must change too. The communities most impacted by suicide cannot be blamed for their trauma, nor should they be held solely responsible for their healing. But history tells us that we cannot depend on a swift dismantling and rebuilding of the systems that have cemented racial discrimination into their bedrocks. This is why at Hurdle, we commit to the long game of building a new mental healthcare system, one that honors race and culture, while simultaneously extending help here and now.
Research shows people who are having thoughts of suicide feel relief when someone asks after them in a caring way. Findings suggest acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce rather than increase suicidal ideation. I can speak directly for the black community when I say that the stigma of mental illness, and particularly suicide, keeps us from asking after one another’s wellbeing in a way that holds space for someone to not be okay. These are delicate and personal conversations, but ones that we must start having in order to help one another out of the darkness and into the light.