By Erika Winston
When high profile suicides occur, they call attention to the seriousness of the issue, but unfortunately at the cost of a life. The death of “Soul Train” host and creator Don Cornelius placed a light on the issue of suicide in the African American community. His creation was a weekly staple for generations of Blacks. It was a symbol of Black entertainment, talent and fun. So, many found it shocking to learn that the person responsible for so much happiness was obviously so unhappy inside. Cornelius was found in his home, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Though the news was incredibly sad, it was also a valuable catalyst for discussions about suicide among African Americans.
In response to his father’s death, Tony Cornelius established the Don Cornelius Foundation to increase awareness, assist people in crisis, and prevent additional suicides. During an interview about the organization, Cornelius reportedly stated, “This is a huge, huge issue and it’s an issue that has a veil of shame over it. People are still very uncomfortable with who’s talking about suicide. Breast cancer at one time was something that was under the table. Women didn’t want to discuss it. AIDS was something that was under the table. No one wanted to discuss it. I mean, I think this is an opportunity to bring this to the surface.”
Experts say communication is the key to suicide prevention. Victims tend to suffer in silence, without communicating their feelings to friends or family. This occurs for a number of reasons, especially within the African American community.
“Black people don’t commit suicide.” This is a widely held misconception within the African American community, where suicide and mental illness are highly regarded as “white people problems”. Contrary to this belief, the number of suicides in the Black community is comparable to those in the white population. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC), suicide is third in the leading causes of death for Blacks aged 15 to 24 years old. Yet, even with this disturbing statistic, African Americans are highly unlikely to seek out mental health treatment. During Suicide Prevention Month, advocates are working to bring attention to this prevalent problem and prevent additional deaths.
The lack of mental health treatment in the African American community is largely cultural. The historical plight of the African American community is a lesson in mental and emotional strength. Surviving the atrocities of slavery and the daily struggles of discrimination require incredible resiliency. These historical struggles have created an expectation of strength that can empower the race as a whole, but also keeps individuals from getting the help that they need. The SPRC reports that most Blacks, who have some form of depressive disorder, receive no treatment.
Mental illness is often seen as a weakness. People who suffer from these illnesses are frequently told to be stronger or have more faith in God. Religion is extremely influential in the African American community, and many spiritual leaders teach that mental illness is the devil trying to control the mind. As such, they may instruct their members that these conditions can be “prayed away” through an unshakable conviction. This type of counsel discourages mentally ill individuals from seeking the assistance of professionals and left untreated, psychiatric problems can cause harm to the individual, as well as others.
Negative attitudes about mental illness are embedded in the African American culture and passed down between generations. A study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior concluded that Blacks are less likely to seek treatment if they have a family history of untreated mental health disorders. Alice P. Villatoro, PhD was the study author. She explained that mental health treatment is a “very social process and families can be an important resource for individuals trying to access help.” Family support is vital to the proper treatment of mental illness, especially within the African American community.
Getting Help in Richmond
There are numerous service organizations within the Richmond metropolitan region for mental health assistance and suicide prevention. The Richmond Behavioral Health Authority (RBHA) provides valuable resources to area residents. With a 24-hour crisis hotline, highly qualified mental health specialists are always available to provide assistance and suicide intervention. The RBHA also assists with referrals for therapy and continuous mental health counseling. Various levels of assistance and resources are available regardless of race, age, and financial status. The number of RBHA is (804) 819-4100.
The National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Central Virginia is another valuable resource for assistance. The organization challenges the stigma attached to mental illness through education, research, and advocacy. In addition, NAMI works with the individual through the provision of peer counseling, where mentally ill adults share their experiences and tools for healthy living. Group support networks are also available to assist family members and caregivers in effectively handling the challenges of caring for a mentally ill individual. NAMI can be contacted at (804) 285-1749.
For adults with severe mental illnesses, the Henrico Department of Mental Health and Developmental Services offers Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) programs that focus on recovery services. According to the agency website, these services are based on the belief that mentally ill adults can live healthy lives with the appropriate combination of treatment, rehabilitation and support. In addition to crisis intervention services, ACT clients also receive intensive case management with regular visitations from support workers and life management skills. To contact the department intake line, call (804) 727-8515.
Black people do commit suicide, and communication is the key to prevention. Cornelius said in his interview that suicide does not have a claim of reference. “It’s in the air. It’s colorless… So it really takes people who can see, who can pay attention, who can say ‘I have a friend of mine that’s in a bad way and I really want to help.’” It’s too late to ask those questions after a suicide. The African American community must create an environment that embraces the mentally ill, instead of stigmatizing them.
“If someone had asked my father ‘How can I help you and where does it hurt?’ he may have answered the question,” stated Cornelius. “But if you don’t ask those questions, you will never know.”