“I think we still struggle with identifying who we are,” Winful said in an interview with BYP.


Editor’s Note: This essay contains discussion of suicide

By Carlett Spike 

The thought of killing myself has crossed my mind before. I was depressed as a teen — overwhelmed by the pressures to succeed in high school, keep up with way too many activities and ultimately get into a good college. 

I had a plan. I’d swallow a bunch of pills, because any other course of action seemed too violent. I mentioned this to friends, but they didn’t take me seriously. I guess they were right, as I’m obviously still here — but that hasn’t been the case for all of us.

After my freshman year of college, a Black man I knew from high school — although not extremely well — committed suicide. It made headlines because it was first believed that he was missing, but later his body was found in a river. What I didn’t know then was that, years later, a handful of other guys (most of them Black) I went to high school with would also take their own lives.  

In recent years, more Black teens have been attempting suicide than ever before, according to a study by researchers at New York University published in the journal Pediatrics. The study was conducted from 1991 to 2017 — while my peers and I were in high school. It notes that the rate of suicides among Black boys increased the most.

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The data has surprised many given that historically Black teens have had lower suicide rates compared to other racial and ethnic groups. Now, the rates have declined for all groups except Black children, and the study doesn’t answer why.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Linda Winful speculates that there are likely a number of factors contributing to these findings. Stress, lack of support, lack of access to health care resources (i.e. if a person is uninsured) and unresolved traumas are a few common causes she points to. 

“I think we still struggle with identifying who we are,” Winful said in an interview with BYP.

Generally speaking, the Black community in America carries a historical trauma that stems from slavery. In addition to dealing with outright racism and microaggressions, without sometimes realizing it, Black people code switch throughout the day and constantly bare the weight of double consciousness — the famous phrase coined by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1897 to explain how Black people’s identity is divided into several facets by necessity of living under an anti-Black state.

The idea of struggling with self-identification hit home for me. I remember being stuck between who I wanted to be and who my family expected me to be, and I still struggle with that now as I second guess myself on every decision and take excruciatingly long to make them. 

Winful also suspects the rise of social media may play a role, as children and teens may be more susceptible to bullying on these platforms. Social media also possibly takes away from the real world connections that we need. 

“Before we would be able to confide in someone else — your church or spiritual leaders for example — but now how are we encouraging that?” Winful said. “How can somebody reach out to somebody else and say, ‘I need help, I’m struggling’?”

Sometimes you can’t do anything to immediately help youth in these situations, Winful said, but her advice is to pay attention. This is obviously easier said than done, but the signs of someone who is thinking of or already hurting themselves are usually there. 

More often than not, after a suicide occurs people say that the person seemed fine or that they had no idea. In the case of my classmate, his parents and other community members never accepted the verdict. They said their son would never turn to suicide. 

That stigma is so powerful and debilitating. Growing up in a Caribbean household, my loved ones used words like “coward” and “selfish” to describe those who decided to take their own lives, which ensured I never spoke to them about it.  

Even when people are upfront with their feelings and say, “I don’t feel like living anymore,” others don’t always take it seriously. “Most of the time, in our community we feel like they want attention,” Winful said. I wonder if that’s what my friends thought before they decided to take their lives.

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Now, as an adult in my mid-twenties, I understand that my “issues” then seemed bigger than they actually were, but at that time those feelings of sadness and hopelessness were very real. Winful argues that part of the problem of acknowledging the realness of those feelings may be the legitimate suspicion of medical professionals and lack of understanding of mental health needs in the Black community. 

Although none of my classmates were teenagers when they took their lives, I wonder if those feelings of hopelessness festered over a number of years, like they did for me. If I could talk to my younger self, it would have helped to hear that my feelings were valid. It would have helped if my family, friends or community spoke more openly about struggling so I didn’t feel like I was the only one. I’m glad that more young Black people are talking openly about seeking therapy and struggling with mental illness, and we need to continue creating space for them to do so if we want them to survive.

Carlett Spike a is a New Jersey-based writer and editor. Her work runs the gamut from race issues to health and food. She is a proud Rutgers alumna and earned her master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has been featured in Shondaland, New Jersey Monthly, and Good Company among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike and Instagram