I started writing this article when it was reported that singer/performer Fantasia Barrino attempted suicide in 2010. But the buzz of that event in our ever increasing pop culture and 140 character social media world was a fleeting moment to discuss a “taboo” which usually resides at the margins of daily life, especially for people of color. With Fantasia’s speedy recovery and return to the stage, the deeper aspects of this conversation quickly faded. But here it is again because it did not really fade. It is always with us, but just not always as public. We know this place. With the alleged suicide of Don Cornelius, the conduit of creativity for Soul Train, it is here for us all to see, grieve, and ask why.

I remember the first time suicide prompted me to ask the elusive question “why?” As a twelve-year old girl, I was lost when a childhood friend from my neighborhood and church, whom I affectionately referred to as “cousin,” took his own life at the young age of 16. He was a superstar athlete and popular at school. Naturally, I questioned why this happened. It was explained to me that it was an accident and “the gun went off.” But I remember arguing about it with kids and teachers at school who did not accept it as an accident. I determined they were lying. They had to be. What other explanation was there? And why would someone suggest that he would do this to himself? Confused, I stood before a packed church of 300-plus mourners, above the casket of my “cousin” and read his obituary. The faces of the crowd, young and old, looked about as confused as I was. Less of a question and more of an entangled announcement, we all silently asked “why.”

Emphasis on silence. There is a code of silence around the topic of suicide in our communities; and not just suicide, but mental health as a whole, ranging from severe depression and anxiety, to mental illness like schizophrenia. The root of such issues can vary, but no matter the source, it is happening everywhere. Although some groups are disparately affected more than others, according to the CDC, no group is absolved from suicide or mental health regardless of race, class, or gender. Therefore, it impacts us all.

Yet, Black folks, and other people of color, are not given permission to work through their crap. This permission is not given by themselves or their community. Instead, we are instructed to be strong, to get over it, to keep it pushin’, or in the words of the late Tupac Shakur, to “keep ya head up” because it will all be okay.

When I was an undergrad, feeling like my life was tearing at the seams, I shared with a few close family and friends that I was going to see the campus counselor. Their shocked response: “Is that necessary? There’s nothing really wrong with you. You’re alright. You’ll be fine.” I was not alright. I was not fine. And sometimes, many of us are not fine either.

We are expected and encouraged to suffer in silence and privately move on because it is considered weak to do otherwise. When Ron Artest was interviewed in 2010 after the L.A. Lakers won the championship, he thanked his psychiatrist on national television, shocking the sports world of fans and commentators alike by sharing his open mental health process: therapy.

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  • Jazz

    Having a mother diagnosed with manic depression/bipolar disorder I understand the horrors of mental illness all to well. There were times when she’s attempted to take her own life. It consumes not only that person but the family as well. It just as serious if not worst sometimes than a physical condition. For years I was angered at my mom for it, and even embarassed growing up. I just didnt understand why she couldn’t just pull herself out of it sometimes until i suffered from my own bout of depression after a reaction from a medication I was taking. My short lived experience with it was dreadful and something I never want to experience again. I vowed to be more understanding to my mothers ilness and help in every way that I could.

    Mental illness in the black community is all too real, we all joke as having a cousin or family member that is a little “touched” or “tap” but we need to give these family members the help that they need and stop brushing it under the rug. Just going to church is NOT the answer, which we as a race often encourage, there needs to be professional help and resources. Also the worst thing that you can do to these family members with these mental illnesses is criticize them or brush their situation off as “not being that serious” , often times that is what leads them to suicide because they feel no one understands.

  • Shirl

    Off and on I’ve been going through terrible bouts of depression I didn’t realize until a moment ago that that’s what it is. There is this overwhelming sense of doom. It’s so debilitating that I can’t leave my bed. It comes in waves is the best that I can explain it. One moment I feel fine and the next… I have also started having panic attacks. I can’t for the life of me figure out why this is happening. I’ve never had issues with mental illness. Can you be stressed and not know it? It seems like this just came out of the blue

    • OSHH

      I started having panic attacks soon after my Granma passed, out of the blue.
      In my case I think it was due to the aniexty and grief I was dealing with from losing the person I was closest to in the whole world. By acknowledging the magnitude of such a great loss, and going through the grieving process,with time, prayer, and a determined faith. I got through that period too.
      I think panic attacks are brought on by anxiety unchecked.

  • OSHH

    As someone who was diagnosed in my teen years as clinically depressed, due to being the child of an alcoholic, and being verbally, mentally, and sexually abused. I survived because I did seek treatment but more than that, I made a decision @ 17 years old, *nod to Bosslady* that I was not going to be defeated by my childhood traumas and I was not going to be robbed of my joy and vigor for living.
    Everyone has obstacles, you overcome some and then up pop more. thats a part of life, they never go away, but it’s all in how you learn to cope and roll with the punches, the peaks and valleys of life.
    I still have occasional bouts, but I choose not to stay in that space. Instead I focus on the good things and try to have a heart of gratitude for what I am blessed with, and try to see myself where and feeling how I want to be.
    Prayer, and my relationshipo with GOD has helped me tremendously, to say it hasn;t would be a lie, but often times people need professional help in addition to..
    Physical activities, like walking outdoors and going to gym have been ways of coping for me, as well as having a support system where I can vent, I don’t have alot of friends but the few I have are gold. It helps alot to know that you are not alone and things including with your outlook on life can change for the better. You have to make the decision though and do your part in seeking treatment and finding healthy ways to cope and be.