Years ago, when Mike Veny was 10, he attempted to kill himself. He said the pain was just too much for him to withstand and he just wanted it to go away. He didn’t know about the tools available to people today like sitting and talking about one’s feelings or learning to deal with one’s internal strife.
“One day I came home, and I said I was done,” he explained to BET.com. “And I went to the medicine cabinet...swallowed an entire bottle of pills.”
His mother later found him and took him to the hospital where his stomach was pumped. Ironically, he says, at the time he was angry at his mother for preventing him from ending his pain. And although he survived the attempt, it wasn’t the end of many more bouts of depression which culminated in at least one other suicide attempt.
Veny’s situation, while sad, is not unique. Between 1991 and 2017 Black male adolescents have represented the largest increase in suicide attempts of any group at 162.4 percent, according to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Factors like social isolation, unaddressed mental health problems and the generations-old issues of institutionalized and systemic racism, have formed a gauntlet for young men over the past generation that many find hard to survive.
Veny, who says he has struggled with mental health challenges for years, spoke about these issues recently as a guest on Saving Young Black Lives: Reversing Suicide Trends, a new podcast series from the Central East Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, in partnership with New York University’s McSilver Institute which focuses on the phenomenon of suicide among Black youth.
Young, Black women are not left out of this scourge. Suicide attempts have also increased for Black female adolescents by 62.1 percent, JAMA reports, and the problem actually stretches across racial and ethnic groups. But the dramatic increase among Black males is pronounced and has people in the mental health community ringing the alarm and even more determined to provide help.
For Veny, author of Transforming Stigma: How to Become a Mental Wellness Superhero and a Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist, the stigmatization of mental health problems in the African American community is a root cause of many issues.
“Although things have gotten better in the past few years, there's still a struggle to talk about this openly, especially among men,” said Veny. “So there's a real challenge amongst African American youth, with talking about just mental health in general. Combine that with all this going on in the world, due to the internet and social media, we're seeing it more and when you’re not able to talk about stuff, you've got a recipe for disaster.”
Challenging Definitions Of Manhood
There is a narrative that young Black men and boys feel hindered when it comes to talking about their feelings or the issues they may be struggling with internally. Their inability to be open only leads to further internalization of their emotions and potentially externalization of their pain.
To explain this further, Veny referred to an article he published on his website, entitled “Depression vs. The Strong Black Man,” in which he discusses the issue and says he ran into a roadblock.
“At the time, I typed ‘strong Black man’ into Google to find a definition. I could not find one, which I thought was very interesting.” But he says he finds the topic thrown around the African American community liberally almost as an archetype.
“I think this mythical image that we hold in our minds, makes it difficult to show our vulnerabilities and talk to each other,” Veny continued, “We’ve got to be tough around each other we’ve got to show that we’re strong. There are cultural myths that we keep in our minds of what a strong Black man is and that’s affecting our young men.”
The phenomenon goes even deeper than that. In addition to the cultural need for young men to be seen as super men, multiple societal factors can also lead to the depression that causes suicide attempts. Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, therapist and founder of the nonprofit AAKOMA Project, agrees with Veny about the stigmatization of mental unwellness among Black people, and insists that is only one piece of the puzzle.
“Because you have the additional layers of racial trauma, racial stress, some of the other social justice issues that impact Black people, also in the context of COVID, as well as the lack of access and disparities in terms of who can access care, and what quality of care people get, you have this awful perfect storm of factors that really weigh on Black people in unique ways,” Breland-Noble noted.
WATCH: Black Men and Mental Health
Many Black people don’t see traditional forms of mental health treatment as viable, and because of the lack of access and lower number of mental health professionals to the community, fewer people wind up seeking care.
“So what do people do instead? Many people simply suffer in silence,” she said. “That’s how you wind up with these skyrocketing rates of suicide attempts. When we look at the data from the (Congressional Black Caucus) ‘Ring the Alarm’ report, you have these high rates for boys specifically that are also high in terms of attempts and injuries related to suicide.
“If these things aren’t being addressed in childhood, then you have young people who are growing into adulthood, where many have never received treatment for the kinds of precursors leading to suicide,” said Breland-Noble, noting some examples include traumatic brain injury, depression or even impulsive behaviors.
Racial trauma is also an often-overlooked reason behind the stressors that can lead to suicidal behavior in young Black males. Many are subject to the effect of institutionalized or systemic racism and that is exacerbated with constant mainstream and social media images of Black individuals like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others who have lost their lives to police or vigilante violence.
“There’s so many names,” Breland-Noble said. “Seeing those things happen over and over to Black people, we can't forget that these kinds of attacks and murders and deaths are happening to Black folks, in particular Black men...even the trauma that comes from police encounters where it doesn’t result in death but you’re still traumatized, these things are very specific to Black people, particularly Black men.”
The (Congressional Black Caucus) ‘Ring the Alarm’ report outlines recommendations for addressing the problems that are fueling the increases in youth suicides. Among them are:
- Increasing research through the National Institutes of Health and funding for the National Institute of Mental Health
- Increase funding for Black researchers who are focused on this area of study
- Institute projects that demonstrate best practice cases implemented by public and private partnership that intervene in youth suicide crises
- Ensuring engagement between lawmakers and public policy makers with communities where it would be effective concerning youth of color and also LGBTQ+ youth.
- Create a national website where data can be collected on the topic of suicidal behavior amongst youth of color.
Veny also pointed out that since many African Americans receive their healthcare through the public health system, there should be a stronger effort made by those institutions to make mental health treatments more accessible for Black men.
“I think it needs to be a very coordinated campaign with religious organizations in the Black community because even if you’re not a religious person, you know about the local churches because of the social power they have,” he explained. “It’s important that these public health services that address mental health do it more collaboratively and aggressively.”
He also encouraged men to start finding ways to participate in self-care, and that can mean a variety of things.
“Self care is anything you do for your health when you’re not in the presence of a medical professional,” he said. “Start to be intentional about things to take care of your health. It's unique to everyone, there’s no prescription. Exercise is very important. I think everyone should be doing that, but it's finding a combination of activities that work for you so you can get in the habit of being your best and feeling at your best.”
In the instances in which suicidal thoughts occur in an individual and need immediate addressing, Breland-Noble suggests finding an immediate solution.
“If I’m speaking specifically to Black people what I would say is don’t be alone. If there’s a way for you to connect whether it’s the Crisis Text Line, or you have these 800 numbers, just don’t allow yourself to be alone,” she said. “Because if you're alone,it is really hard to make those thoughts dissipate.
“Sometimes when people are experiencing suicidal thoughts in the moment if they can be connected to another human, whether that's by text, by phone, or even in person, that other person can really help bring them from what we call ‘hot in the moment’ to a little bit cooler. We all have to have someone we trust-- a safe person in our lives, who if things go South, and we just really feel awful, we know we can pick up the phone and text or call or walk into the next room and find that person.”
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. For more information and resources on mental health in the Black community, check out these links from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
If you are in immediate crisis and are having suicidal thoughts, reach out to a friend or loved one, or call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)