Imagine the thoughts of a suicidal teenager: If I don’t get some help soon, I’m going to kill myself. I know that I’m supposed to be strong, but I have lost my will to live. Plus, no one wants me here anyway. I just need a way out of all of this pain. … Maybe there is someone out there who knows what I’m going through that I can talk to. But where are they? And why should they care?Now imagine that the teenager is a minority.Over the past year, suicide in minority communities was on the rise. Though African Americans have traditionally experienced substantially lower rates of suicide than whites, this disparity is rapidly decreasing. Here in North Carolina, between 1990 and 1998, the suicide rate among African-American teens more than doubled. Young black males now kill themselves at almost the same rate as their white male peers. As a result, the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide (NOPCAS)–a nonprofit started by parents of suicide victims–is holding their annual conference Feb. 1 and 2 at the Durham Marriott. (The conference, which is open to the public, includes discussions and strategy sessions on the rising suicide rates of Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as well.)But now that this growing problem has been identified–and given that many African Americans still adhere to the traditional falsehood that “black folks don’t kill themselves”–can available mental health services ensure that young, suicidal African Americans get the help they need?
“Ideally, yes,” says Jane Ann Miller, head of the North Carolina Suicide Prevention Task Force. Miller outlines how the process should unfold. “If they are identified by someone who is aware, they should try to ascertain whether or not that youth is in immediate harm.” This may involve, explains Miller, getting that youth to commit to a “safety contract”–an agreement that says they will not harm themselves. And without exception, a professional mental health provider should be contacted immediately.
“The rule of thumb is that you don’t leave that youth alone,” stresses Miller, noting the need to “be supportive and nonjudgmental” while talking with potentially suicidal teens. Once seen by a mental health professional, it’s determined whether inpatient or outpatient care is necessary. Even if the youth is deemed stable and allowed to go home, continues Miller, they must be adequately supervised by a parent, guardian or caregiver.
Unfortunately for African-American youth, this process can often be less than ideal. Given they are commonly brought up in communities plagued by inequity and despair, they are conditioned to “be strong” in order to overcome these social obstacles. Combined with the historic lack of communal dialogue on the subjects of suicide and depression–the latter often being dismissed as a temporary bout with “the blues”–some black youth decline to reach out at all.
“The biggest barrier to treatment is that it is difficult for people to seek mental health services in the first place,” says Evester Bailey, the Unit Director for Crisis and Court Services for Durham County.
For black youth, sustaining services is a problem as well, given the statewide deficiency of both young and African-American providers in the mental health arena. “It’s true with youth,” says Miller, that “they’re more likely to open up and relate to younger providers and role models.”
Durham resident Nayo Watkins, the chair of the NOPCAS conference who lost a 16-year-old son to suicide four years ago, says she tried to locate a black professional therapist after her son’s first unsuccessful attempt in February 1998. “At the time,” recalls Watkins, “no one could come up with a name.”
Ultimately, Watkins, Miller and Bailey hope that the upcoming NOPCAS conference will promote an increased dialogue among service providers in North Carolina and elsewhere so, as says Bailey, “We can identify ways to make services more accessible to the kids who really need them.”
For more info on the NOPCAS conference, contact Nayo Watkins at (919) 956-7672 or NAYOYAN@aol.com.