Commentary: Even "Strong" Black Women Can Kill Themselves

Karyn Washington's death reminds us that suicide affects everyone. 

Posted: 04/15/2014 11:50 AM EDT

(Photo: Karyn Washington via Instagram)

The impact that Karyn Washington left behind is undeniable.

At the age of 20, Washington created the blog For Brown Girls and in 2013 launched the #DarkSkinRedLip project in response to A$AP Rocky’s ignorant comments that suggested that darker-skinned women shouldn’t wear red lipstick. This call to action sparked thousands of other Black women and women of color to post photos of themselves rocking their crimson lips proudly.

In an interview with Madame Noire, Washington talked about how she used her own insecurities about her skin color to empower others:

“When the blog was initially created, my cousin and I were dealing with self-esteem issues relating to our complexion and we would vent to each other. Through talking it out and building each other up, we felt better but also didn’t like the fact that we were even having these feelings to begin with. We also realized that other girls may be going through the same thing and wanted to use Tumblr as a means to vent, encourage others and overcome. Since then, I have gained a greater passion for the cause and helping others.”

Through the lens of social media, Washington appeared to be the epitome of strength and empowerment, not just for others but for herself. But what people like me didn’t know was that Washington was fighting severe depression that may have been exacerbated from her mother’s death.

On April 8, Washington lost that fight in what appears to be a suicide.

When I heard of the news of Washington’s death, I instantly said, “Not another one.” It was only a few years ago that Erica Kennedy, a fellow colleague and Black feminist writer, killed herself, too. Kennedy and Washington had so many similarities. They had this uncanny ability to use social media as a means to bring together Black women, were leaders in their community and both seemingly suffered mental health issues in silence.

But most important, Washington and Kennedy debunk the myth of who we believe to be the face of suicide. This isn’t some weak-willed white person’s problem. This is our issue, too.

And it’s understandable why women like Washington and Kennedy may have kept their mental health problems a secret. They have been afraid of judgment and didn’t want their work to be undermined. It ain’t easy being a Black woman. We are often told that there is no room for us to be vulnerable and that we cannot let things get us down. And with being able to control your persona via social media, it’s very easy to put on a façade of happiness and mental stability. Not to mention, for “strong” Black women, especially those who are leaders, the pressure to wear this mask of being indestructible can stop them from admitting that they have a problem and getting the help that they need.

And trust: This need for mental health services is growing.

According to past data, while Black men were more likely to actually commit suicide, Black women were more likely to try committing suicide among all races and genders. Also, suicide is steadily increasing among Black women ages 15-25 and it is the number three cause of death of young Blacks ages 10-19 after homicide and accidents. 

It's clear that we are not all alright and that "strength" is not going to protect us and neither will cultural stigma. 

In the end, nothing "good" can come from Washington's tragic death — her life was lost way too soon. But none of us should walk away from this incident untouched. We can no longer afford to ignore mental health in our community or continue to assume that only a certain person is at risk. 

Because clearly, that just isn't true.  

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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