From The Grio –Fantasia Barrino’s reported suicide attempt last week highlighted the seemingly little-known problem of suicide in the African-American community. The American Idol winner and reality TV star, 26, was released from a North Carolina hospital Wednesday after she overdosed on a cocktail of aspirin and sleeping pills — reportedly after being overwhelmed by media attention and public speculation over her 11-month relationship with married cell phone salesman Antwuan Cook. Cook’s wife, Paula, names Barrino in divorce papers as responsible for the breakdown of the marriage, and believed Barrino and Cook had made sex tapes.

More than 350 African-American women took their own lives in 2007, compared with 1,606 of their male counterparts, according to the American Association of Suicidology. 2007 was the most recent year the information was available. And although African-American women have the lowest rate of suicide of any racial group, they are more likely than African-American men to attempt suicide, the association states.

“Any attempt at suicide is a desperate, desperate cry for help,” said social worker Laverne Williams, director of the Promoting Emotional Wellness and Spirituality Program through the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, and the owner of Laverne Williams Enterprise, LLC, a consulting firm that provides faith-based health education.

The revelation that Cook was married, the release of the divorce papers, the public attention and other “precipitating events,” could have triggered Barrino’s despondency, said Donna Holland Barnes, who teaches suicide risk management at Howard University and is the president and co-founder of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide.

“If we have enough events happen to us that life no longer has any meaning–especially when that meaning was based on certain things and that meaning was taken away from us–sometimes it can trigger an attempt, or a wish to die,” Barnes said.

Barrino isn’t the only African-American singer who has had a brush with suicide. R&B singer Ginuwine, who recently created a charity to help people with physical and mental health problems, said his father killed himself and that he had attempted suicide. R&B singer Monica’s then-boyfriend, Jarvis Weems, shot himself in front of her 10 years ago. And many believe Donny Hathaway jumped to his death from his 15th floor hotel room in

Barnes and Williams said there is still a stigma among many in the black community surrounding mental health problems and getting treatment. Some African-Americans were not socialized to talk about mental health issues, and the sense of shame attached to it, coupled with not being able to talk openly about it, creates “a double stigma,” Barnes said.

African-American males can have an especially hard time seeking help for mental illness, Barnes said. If they go for help, they may not stay in treatment. And if they’re prescribed medication, they may not stay on it.

“They don’t want to be stigmatized by taking medication or seeing somebody,” Barnes said, “because they look at it as a sign of weakness, or a character flaw.”

The notion of wanting to kill oneself can also manifest through reckless activities, like excessive shopping, gambling, promiscuity and substance abuse–even gang-banging, Williams said.

“Suicide itself doesn’t always mean that somebody takes a gun, or a knife to their wrists,” Williams said. “It also means risky behavior.”

Williams, who leads mental health education workshops in minority communities, said she’s heard participants remark that they can pray mental health problems away or that “black folks don’t commit suicide.”

“Until we start normalizing the fact that it’s okay to go to the psychiatrist or a psychologist, half of the African-American community will still be walking around with emotional challenges,” Williams said. “We’re scratching the surface.”

African-Americans today also face unique pressures following the civil rights movement and the dismantling of segregation, said the Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries Jr., senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, NJ. Soaries said achieving levels of success unheard of even a few generations ago, coupled with navigating a society where racism is more subtle, can create mental health stressors for African-Americans.

“It’s been a huge challenge for us,” Soaries said. “There is no historical paradigm. There is no template for doing what we are trying to do.”

Soaries has long supported the idea that there is no conflict between one’s faith and seeking mental health treatment. But, he said historically, many black churches have not overtly advocated that its members get help with psychological problems.

“Many churches have not been aggressive in dealing with mental health issues,” Soaries said. “We put so much emphasis on the spiritual, that often, our theology does not make room for professional therapists.”

Officials at the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens have hired an on-staff therapist, who provides counseling and works to link members with a variety of mental health resources. The church plans to train its lay leaders to identify symptoms of mental health problems and host events for its staff to ensure they’re getting help should they need it.

“We need to make mental health treatment proactive,” Soaries said. “We can’t wait until the 11th hour, when we feel like giving up.”

Barnes said those who feel despondent–especially young people–have to realize that their feelings of hopelessness or dejection are only temporary, and that they should speak to someone they trust about their feelings.

“Just talk to somebody,” she said. “Let them know what they’re going through so they can help them get help. Don’t keep it a secret.”

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  • Thank you for writing this story and bring to light a subject that we African-Americans shy away from. As someone who was once diagnosed with “mild depression” and sought counseling, an has been receiving guidance from a life coach, I have long advocated getting psychological counseling. We all, no matter race, religion, etc have issues that we can use professional help to uncover. African-Americans don’t give ourselves enough space to be vulnerable and admit we may need help in some area of our lives, particularly emotionally and mentally. It doesn’t mean one is “crazy” or weak to seek help. It just means we are aware that we cannot do everything, solve every problem on our own. We need more discussions of this nature. Kudos to First Baptist Church- I hope other church organizations follow in promoting mental health awareness. We need to keep the conversation going. Perhaps we can get to “normalizing” seeking counseling, therapy and have less African-Americans turning to drugs, shopping, gambling, gangs, sex to escape their pain. I can attest that having a life coach (highly trained and certified) for a year now has helped me face problems, heal old wounds and create healthier ways of dealing with my emotional pain & mental blocks. I often try to share my discovories with family, but those who would benefit most take on a “that’s for you not me” stance we often imprison ourselves with. I hope Fantasia gets help and uses her celebrity to continue the discussion so that more African-Americans can do the same.

  • I’m glad CLUTCH posted this article. I have had three women in my life, who are all African American attempt suicide in the last five years. It is truly a scary thing. And when it happens, I’m not calling this person selfish or judging them for their actions, I’m trying to find answers and trying to figure out the most effective way to help this person. I think with Fantasia, it was so easy for people to judge her, but when you have situations like these that have happened in your life you know that people who attempt suicide are fragile and need support more than anything. Suicide is yet another thing we keep quiet about in the Black community as well as mental health issues, but there are a lot of people out there literally and figuratively on the edge and we need to help these people and let them know that they aren’t alone in the problems. We should encourage people to get help, instead of shaming them for feeling trapped.

  • dendoo

    I’ve read some stories of this being a fake suicide attempt and some stories of it being real but whether it’s fake or not I am PROUD and GLAD that Clutch chose to do a piece on Depression and Mental Issues and equally happy that you guys chose to attack it from this angle. Wow that was a long sentence!

    I suffer from Depression and Anxiety and a part of you believes it’s shameful because you’re taking this medicine and you have to hide it…you’re black so you’re supposed to be okay.

    But as long as you have a brain then you can have mental problems. There’s nothing wrong with seeking help, there’s nothing wrong with talking, taking meds, and sharing your experiences because you never know who is hiding those very same needs and issues….you can be a light in someone’s darkness.

  • I am so pleased that Clutch published this write up. As a psych major It was so disheartening to read so many blogs accusing Fantasia as being “selfish”, “stupid”, or “dumb” for attempting suicide. It is very clear that there is a desperate need for the Black community to be educated about mental health issues. I hope Fantasia’s situation has shed some light on the reality of mental illness in the Black community and perhaps we will begin to see more acceptance of counseling, therapy and even medication.

  • Beef Bacon

    Well written. As a psych major, I totally agree that our community needs to respect that sometimes you just NEED professional help; talking with you friends will not cut it all the time.

    When I open my private practice, I am going to be sure to market to MY community that–

    “Until we start normalizing the fact that it’s okay to go to the psychiatrist or a psychologist, half of the African-American community will still be walking around with emotional challenges,” Williams said. “We’re scratching the surface.”

    Not everything can be talked through. Sometimes, there are specific steps and processes one might need to go through before even scratching the surface of what is wrong. Most of us carry layers and layers of baggage unknowingly. People really do not give life experiences credit; they shape your views, thoughts, and actions. Some people are not even operating from a genuine place because they are so caught up in the past.