You want to forget the first time you tried to kill yourself, but you never can.
I was a 15-year-old high sophomore. Unable to obtain a gun, I opted for a “lethal dose” of ibuprofen. I ingested nearly the entire bottle, closed my eyes, and hoped to never open them again.
For me, a Black teen at a predominately white school where I felt little more than tolerated, it wasn’t so much that I hated myself, or the world, even with its unfairness, even with its racism and cruelty. It was that those grievances contributed to an abiding apathy toward life.
That apathy restricted me from fully appreciating my parents, who both held two jobs, working dual 70-hour workweeks in order to afford me a private education better than the one my neighborhood school could provide.
All I saw was a life that made little room for my thoughts or my feelings. A life without space for my story, my quirks and my idiosyncrasies. A life invalidating my experience, glossing over it by admonishing me to “try harder to be accepted,” meaning assimilate to the environment around you. A life that gaslit me into thinking that any racist insults or jokes at my expense were imagined or overblown.
A life screaming that I wasn’t prized like the white athlete a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier who was bullying me without redress.
It’s easy as an adolescent to confuse “now” with “forever.”
And if all you can see now is a world of callousness, indifference and disregard then why stick around?
Having asked myself that question as an adolescent, I’m horrified that so many Black youth seem to be asking the same one today. In what is a sub-crisis of a larger one, Black youth in our state are increasingly choosing to prematurely end their lives. A crisis as detrimental to our Black community as “Black-on-Black violence” yet with a fragment of the sustained public uproar.
Black youth suicide among 10- to 19-year-old boys has soared 60% since 2017, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Suicide has also plagued Black girls, with a 59% increase between 2013 and 2019. Black children younger than 13 are now twice as likely to kill themselves compared to white children of the same age. These numbers were increasing even before the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated mental health woes.
Process that for a moment. Children who have barely grazed the surface of life feel compelled to end theirs before hitting puberty.
“We don’t really know how the unique and race-related stressors are contributing to Black youth suicide,” said Laura Prater, a professor at the University of Washington who studies firearm suicides in vulnerable populations.
“But we do know that exposure to trauma, institutionalized racism, and killings of unarmed Black men that started happening before the pandemic, and continued throughout and after, have been associated with negative mental health outcomes in the Black community,” said Prater, referencing research on the psychological penalty of race-based traumatic stress.
Now layer those racist indignities onto the universal struggles of being a kid. A kid grinding to keep pace with a social group, to avoid alienation, and rumbling internally with insecurity from endless social media comparisons.
Now imagine feeling you can’t discuss how all of that erodes your mental health. You fear further alienation from an environment hostile to you sharing your struggles. It’s already a dogfight to conform to what passes for normal.
Why invite further “othering”? Why welcome being treated as crazy and bizarre when everyone else appears to be doing just fine, coasting along, and thriving? Why invite rejection at a period in your life when you desperately seek acceptance?
Shrouding your hurt with drugs, alcohol, and unhealthy sexual encounters becomes an ideal alternative. Fear keeps you from asking for help.
At least that was my experience — one supported by research showing that Black kids less frequently discuss their suicide ideation prior to making an attempt.
As much as we absolutely need greater access to mental health support in our communities of color and a behavioral health field that resembles society at large, we must continuously reinforce a culture supporting our children’s psychological well-being as they struggle through life’s myriad experiences.
My first attempt at suicide was not my last. But I might never have plummeted to such despair if our culture had accepted my pain as genuine, treated my grievances as real, and deemed my life worthy of attention. In the ensuing years, with the help of therapy and medication, I’ve come to understand that.
Unfortunately, too many Black children still don’t.