Taking one’s own life is no longer ‘a White thing’ (if it ever was)
Roderick Johnson first contemplated suicide after a White male school nurse molested him when he was eight. When he tried to share his despair with his mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, she simply would not entertain such a notion and told him, in no uncertain terms, to never speak of his anguish again.
He did as he was told for the next 34 years, learning to suffer in silence and attempting suicide four times over that span, most recently in 2017 following the unexpected death of a friend and a health scare.
“I simply never developed the emotional resources to cope with crises,” Johnson, who asked that his real name not be disclosed, told the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR) in a telephone interview. “So my response to anything going wrong was ‘I have to kill myself.’”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please reach out immediately to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Find more suicide prevention resources at bit.ly/MNSuicidePrevention- ADVERTISEMENT -
Therapy, treatment and family have helped put Johnson, now 46, on the road to recovery. But his former preoccupation with death reflects a startling trend in American public life: While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a slight drop in the nationwide suicide rate overall, from 14.2 per 100,000 people in 2018 to 13.9 in 2019—representing the first year-over-year decrease in 20 years—the suicide rate for Blacks ballooned by 30% between 2014 and 2019, from 5.7 to 7.4 percent per 100,000.
Moreover, preliminary research suggests that the pandemic has only accelerated the trend. Paul Nestadt, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University and co-director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, told National Public Radio that the number of suicides by Whites in Maryland fell by almost half, while Black suicides in the state doubled over that same period.
Said Nestadt: “There’s been some other studies in other small areas [such as] Connecticut, Chicago, that have found something very similar. Overall numbers go down, meaning White numbers go down, and the Black numbers go up.”
Even more alarming, however, is data indicating that African American boys between the ages of five and 12 are more likely to die by suicide than any other age group. Nationwide, suicides by Black children younger than 18 have risen by 71% over the past decade.
According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suicide rates for African Americans peak during adolescence and young adulthood, then decline, in sharp contrast with Whites, whose suicide rates peak in midlife.
The historical relationship between African Americans and suicide is difficult to grasp, in large measure because there is so little reliable data. Until 1979, ethnic disparities in suicide rates were categorized only as “White” and “non-White.”
Complicating matters further are dueling racial narratives. In an effort to diminish the terror visited on Blacks by both slavery and Jim Crow, for example, the 1921 edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry wrote that “most of the race are carefree, live in the here and now with limited capacity to recall or profit by experiences of the past. Sadness and depression have little part of his psychological makeup.”
In the last 25 years, scholars have begun to challenge the notion that suicide is a ‘White thing.’
Similarly, the African American church has also historically endorsed a degree of Black immunity to suicide as a result of religious devotion and a tradition of resistance, and not because they lacked sophistication as the broader White culture often alleged. Some historians have even estimated that the slaveowner was nearly four times more likely to die by suicide than was his slave.
“Our cultural story as a people who endure is why I never imagined that Black people would become more at risk for suicide than White people,” wrote the African American clinical psychologist Rheeda Walker in her book “The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health: Navigate an Unequal System, Learn Tools for Emotional Wellness and Get the Help You Deserve.”
Black icons such as Paul Robeson and James Baldwin reportedly attempted suicide. Acclaimed singers Phyllis Hyman and Donny Hathaway took their own lives. More recently, the entertainment mogul Don Cornelius, the 2019 Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, and Ian Alexander, the 26-year-old son of the actress Regina King, have died by suicide.
In the last 25 years, scholars have begun to challenge the notion that suicide is a “White thing.” In a 1998 paper, David Lester, an emeritus professor of psychology at Stockton University in New Jersey, wrote that it was not uncommon for Africans to take their own lives either after their capture by slave traders, during their transport to the New World, or immediately after their arrival. Suicide appealed to many African tribes who believed that their souls would return to Africa after death.
Research indicates that while Whites continue to die by suicide at higher rates, Blacks are actually more prone to have suicidal thoughts, and there is also evidence to suggest that African Americans attempt to take their own lives more often but are less likely to be successful.
Preferring drug overdoses to guns or wrist-cutting,— “I was interested in not leaving a mess” for others to have to clean up—Johnson decided to finally try therapy after his fourth unsuccessful attempt.
That took eventually, but it was difficult for Johnson to confide initially in his White therapist. “I didn’t talk about any race stuff with him because what would a White person possibly tell me about those things?”
Johnson found at least some of the solutions he was searching for in African American culture. He returned to college, studying the African diaspora and its traditions and becoming active in the Black Lives Matter Movement.
He was able to afford therapy thanks to the “bronze” parachute he collected when he quit his job. That, and the support of his family, afforded him advantages that not all Black men enjoy, he said. However, the surge in suicides among African Americans reflects a sad reality.
“My dad watched his father drown at Rockaway Beach on a Saturday and returned to school on a Monday. He had to—he had a future to secure. I think the increase in suicides among Black men is because we just don’t have much to live for these days.”
Support Black local news
Help amplify Black voices by donating to the MSR. Your contribution enables critical coverage of issues affecting the community and empowers authentic storytelling.