Black folks don’t kill themselves.
At least that’s what black folks say. This widely-held belief among African Americans is founded in a resilience acquired through a history of struggle and hardship. If our people could make it through slavery, the communal clich&233; goes, we can make it through anything.
But for good friends Kathy Poole and Nayo Watkins, this popular view is dead wrong. Five years ago, Poole’s 15-year-old son, Torian Graves, shot himself to death at their Durham home. Two years later, Watkins’ 16-year-old son, Mekye Malcolm, hung himself from a tree on the campus of the Carolina Friends School in Chapel Hill.
“The black community thinks of itself in a certain way,” says Watkins, relaxing on a sofa across from Poole in the latter’s den. A large quilt adorned with pictures and items of clothing worn by Poole’s late son drapes the wall behind them. Watkins, an arts consultant and freelance writer, believes that African Americans have been imbued with a will to survive in the face of great suffering. This collective show of strength, she says, often prevents blacks from knowing how to talk about suicide. “We are trying to get people to talk about it,” says Watkins, “to recognize it as a major problem in our community, and to look out for each other.”
Historically a group with a relatively low incidence of suicide, recent data on suicide rates for black youth point to a growing problem. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate among blacks in the United States aged 10 to 19 more than doubled between 1980 and 1995, and for the 10 to 14 age group the rate had tripled. By 1995, suicide had become the third leading cause of death among blacks aged 15 to 19. Although the CDC does not provide figures for North Carolina, it does report that, during the same 15-year period, the largest increase in suicide rates among black youth occurred in the South.
“There is a killer on the loose,” says Poole. “It is quiet and invisible,” she adds, because we are “not acknowledging its presence, and are scared to say its name.”
As coordinators of the Durham chapter of the Light for Life Foundation Yellow Ribbon Program, a national initiative aimed at preventing youth suicide, confronting the issue is Poole’s and Watkins’ mission. Over the past two years, the two have conducted dozens of workshops on suicide and depression for state and local governments, school systems, universities, churches and community organizations–wherever youth congregate.
“When Nayo and I do our workshops, we make the participants say the words ‘suicide’ and ‘depression,’ because they otherwise would not mention them,” says Poole. The fifth-grade teacher at Burton Elementary in Durham stresses that everyone needs to understand that depression is an illness that can be treated. “If we can just come to accept it as such, we can support each other and get help.”
According to the National Mental Health Association, many African Americans believe that such common symptoms of depression as diminished concentration, sleep changes and suicidal thoughts are either “just the blues” or some kind of individual personality flaw. A recent survey by the association found that two-thirds of its black respondents felt that depression was a personal weakness rather than a medical illness. Close to a third of the respondents believed they could handle clinical depression by themselves. Two-thirds of the respondents also felt that prayer and faith alone will successfully treat depression in most cases.
Watkins feels such communal denial affects African-American youth in particular, noting that depression is “more tricky to identify in children and in teens than adults.” An adult, she continues, often “looks sick” or like something is wrong, whereas a youngster can be outside playing and no one knows there is a problem.
“If I had realized my son was depressed when he was living, I know I would have gotten him help, but I probably would have been ashamed to tell anyone,” says Poole. She was unable to recognize her son’s symptoms, which included appetite changes, headaches and detachment. “I didn’t know any better,” she says.
“But now I know that such disorders are nothing to be ashamed of, and that you don’t have to be afraid of letting people know,” continues Poole. “And every opportunity I get, I’m going to share my story.”
A Devastating Time
On July 13, 1996, Poole’s son Torian, a sophomore at Hillside High School, belted out a powerful saxophone solo during a Saturday morning choir rehearsal at Lincoln Memorial Baptist Church in Durham. “That was the best I’d ever heard him play,” recalls Poole, with a bittersweet smile. Afterwards, the tall youngster, his mother and his policeman stepfather, Robert–Torian’s biological father, Poole’s first husband, was killed in an auto accident in 1987–visited relatives before returning home.
That afternoon, a neighbor and fellow policeman stopped by and informed them that he’d seen Torian earlier that week driving recklessly about the street in his mom’s car when the couple was out. The disappointed parents grounded their son and instructed him to wash his mother’s car while they left to run errands in Raleigh.
At the time, says Poole, she didn’t realize that the car incident was consistent with the risky behavior many depression sufferers exhibit–although she had noticed that earlier in the week Torian seemed down. “I asked him if he was OK, and he told me that he was.”
Unfortunately, he wasn’t. When the couple returned home Saturday evening from their trip to Raleigh, they found the car unwashed and the outside lights off. Kathy Poole entered the house first. “Everything was so dark and still,” she remembers, noting that the only sound she heard was a faint radio coming from Torian’s second floor bedroom. She called her son’s name but got no answer. Poole headed up the stairs and her husband followed.
At the top, they saw what appeared to be Torian’s long legs sprawling out of his room. Poole squinted through the dark, stepped closer and repeated her son’s name. The two reached the entrance to the room.
“I looked in and saw Torian’s eyes,” says Poole softly, noting how “swollen” and lifeless they were. As she speaks, her own eyes fill with water. “I tried to go into the room but Robert grabbed me and held me back.” A hysterical Kathy Poole struggled to be released, but her husband maintained his hold, brought her into their bedroom and called 911.
During the few minutes that elapsed before the authorities and paramedics arrived, Robert kept Poole out of the room. Once there, the authorities did the same. Given her fragile state, Poole now says she is “glad they didn’t let me see him like that.”
According to what the family and police could surmise, the 15-year-old entered his parents’ room after they left and removed his stepfather’s unloaded service revolver from its corner case at the top of the closet. He then located its clip of bullets hidden in the bottom of a dresser drawer under some clothing. Poole believes Torian must have been through their room at some point before, given the lack of evidence showing any real search for the gun and the clip. He made two phone calls, one to a relative and another to a girlfriend. Both were unavailable and he left messages telling them he loved them and saying goodbye. He penned a suicide note saying that this was the only way out of “all of this mess,” while telling his family he loved them and instructing them to whom to give his possessions. Torian then took the gun to his room and shot himself in the head.
“It was a devastating time for the Poole family and for the community,” remembers friend, neighbor and county commissioner MaryAnn Black. A psychiatric social worker, Black says the community “wanted to help the family, but also wanted to discuss what could be done proactively to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.”
At the time, Poole wasn’t sure what had happened. “We thought his life was really in order and that he was doing very well,” says Poole, who believed her son’s moodiness and occasional indiscretions to be typical teenage behavior. “I never saw it coming,” she laments.
For months after the funeral she questioned herself. “Did I do something wrong?” she says. “Was I not a good mother?” Tears stream down her face as she remembers searching for answers.
That December, after learning of the Yellow Ribbon Program through a motivational book, a still-searching Poole visited her son’s classmates at Hillside and launched the Durham chapter of the initiative at the school. In accordance with the program, she spoke to students about communicating their feelings of hopelessness and distributed yellow ribbon cards, which outline how to get help. “It was part of my own therapy,” says Poole, who over the next year, spoke at numerous events. “I would pretty much tell them to not take their own lives, and to find somebody to talk to,” she recalls, shaking her head.
In December 1997 Poole attended a workshop on suicide given by the school system, where she says she “began to recognize what Torian must have been feeling.”
After clarifying that depression is a clinical illness, the program’s facilitators detailed its symptoms. “I sat there stunned,” she recalls. “I kept saying over and over, ‘Torian had that’ or ‘Torian acted that way.’”
Along with ongoing headaches, diminished appetite and spending a lot of time in his room, Poole recognized her son’s irritability, extreme sensitivity and the fact that he had lost loved ones–his father, as well as Poole’s sister, who was murdered by her husband in 1992. In addition, she says, her son was in a relationship just prior to his death that, according to a number of his friends, may have left him feeling rejected.
“I know he was in love for the first time, and maybe he felt another loved one was about to leave him.” Not knowing how to communicate this “mess,” Torian isolated himself and his pain.
Dr. Mawiyah Kambon, a Raleigh-based specialist in child psychology, believes such isolationism is particularly unhealthy for blacks. “We are a communal people,” she says, alluding to the historically close-knit nature of the African village. “When we are isolated we often lose what holds us together, especially since we draw strength from one another.”
Ironically, Poole challenges some of the messages emanating from what many consider as the primary source of collective strength in the African-American community: the church.
“Torian attended church often,” she says. “In church, you always hear folks saying how things are going to be better ‘on that other side’ and how there will be ‘no more sickness and sorrow.’ But I often think about how Torian was sitting there in that congregation suffering, and hearing how things are going to be ‘so much better when we leave this place,’” says Poole. She can only imagine how that must of made him feel. “I now tell pastors to be very careful what they say, because you never know who in that congregation just wants their suffering to end.”
Kambon points out that sometimes, in perpetuating its religious beliefs, the church falls short of discussing practical ways of day-to-day coping. “It relies heavily on the next life,” she says.
Poole’s focus is helping people cope in this life. In April 1998, after seeing news reports on the suicide of Watkins’ son Mekye, she attended his funeral and left a note for the grieving mother to call if she needed to talk. Less than a month later, Watkins called. “I felt lost,” Watkins says. “I needed to relate to somebody that understood what I was going through.”
Though uncertain at first of the program, after the second session Watkins experienced a sense of healing and relief. “You couldn’t save your own, but, possibly, you could save someone else,” she says.
She soon joined Poole’s efforts to prevent youth suicide. She began speaking out on her son’s struggle with a frustrating learning disability that, she believes, contributed to his death. According to the American Association of Suicidology, learning disabilities are the fifth most-common contributing factor to teen suicide.
Watkins also uses her platform to address African Americans’ reluctance to face the issue of suicide. “When Mekye died, there were members of my family who couldn’t even utter the word,” she says. “They couldn’t talk about how my son died.” And that mentality, Watkins adds, goes “across the board in our community.”
“Raising the issue of depression or suicide is not going to cause anybody to kill themselves,” says MaryAnn Black. “However, not raising the issue can lead to tragedy.”
Nineteen-year-old Jokyra Bullock agrees. “I don’t know if I was suicidal, but there was a period in high school where I felt like I didn’t want to be here,” says the Winston-Salem State biology major. The Durham native, who first met Poole as a student in her fifth-grade class, attended a number of Poole’s yellow ribbon workshops in 1998 and 1999. “The programs helped a lot,” she says. “She made me realize that I could talk through my problems, and that I didn’t have to be alone. Whenever I felt the need, I could just pick up the phone and call her, or anyone who would listen,” continues Bullock. “She is still someone I can always talk to.”
Poole wants to be there for more kids. She is currently pursuing a second masters degree in counseling at North Carolina Central University to go along with a previous one in elementary education. She plans to become a school guidance counselor after she completes the program.
“Sometimes I ask God, ‘God why did you have to choose me?’” says a smiling Poole, with her eyes closed and head tilted toward the sky. “But I know what He wants me to do.
“You can take those tragic things that happen to you in life and turn them into positives,” she says.
Poole and Watkins are positive that the brief lives of Torian and Mekye can encourage a more open dialogue about suicide in a community that has traditionally refused to confront their killer–a dialogue which has helped kids like Bullock continue to lead productive lives.
There may be no way to measure success, or to account for those who, as a result of their efforts, recognized suicidal tendencies in themselves or someone else and got help. But to Poole and Watkins, not knowing how successful they are may be the best measurement of all.
Youth and adults in need of someone to talk to about depression can contact the local Yellow Ribbon chapter at (919) 544-7992 or (919) 956-7672.