Friday, November 28, 2008

Guest Post: Black Men and Suicide by Joshua Alston, Newsweek Magazine

The line between public and private in the Internet age became blurrier last week following the case of Abraham Biggs, the 19-year-old Floridian who committed suicide by overdosing on prescription medication as a populated chat room watched him via his live webcam. The voyeuristic nature of Biggs's death is disturbing, but it draws attention to the equally disturbing rate of suicide among young black men. According to the American Association of Suicidology, the rate of suicide among black men ages 15-24 increased 83 percent in the '80s to early '90s. While the rate has fallen since, suicide is still the third leading cause of death among young black men, who are seven times as likely to commit suicide as black women. Dr. Sean Joe is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan who studies suicide and other self-destructive behaviors among young black men. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Joshua Alston. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What was your initial impression of the Biggs case?
Sean Joe: My first reaction is, obviously, one of sadness. It's a sad situation. But there was also, for me and for many, surprise that this was an African-American male. Also there's the issue of the content provider, their efforts to control or block access to the content, and the shocking nature of the voyeurism involved.

Why were you surprised that he was African-American?
As someone who studies this area, I wasn't surprised in that black men engage in suicidal behavior. I was surprised, though, by the nature of the suicide: both the means, the use of a substance, and the exhibitionist aspect of it. Generally speaking, firearms are most often used in suicides, followed by some type of asphyxiation, and then poisoning. But the rate at which firearms are used is higher among African-Americans. Also there is still a lot of stigma in the black community with mental-health issues and seeking help for them. Because this young man did it in this extremely public way, it's clear that he was not as affected by that stigma. That's what makes this such a unique case. Many families have trouble talking about suicide even after the fact because it's such a major source of stigma. That's not specific to blacks, obviously, but it is very common among black families.

Is there a perception in the black community that suicide is not a problem?
There was an idea in the black community, and to a certain degree in the mental-health community, that blacks didn't engage in suicidal behavior. But there was a large increase in suicides among African-Americans, particularly young black males that began in the late 1980s and rose to its peak in the late 1990s. The current rate of suicide among black males ages 15 to 24 is not higher than that of whites, but it is parallel with it. There are still things we don't yet understand, but there is an increased understanding that, yes, young black males do engage both in suicide and suicidal behaviors that don't lead to death. And in order to help those young men, it's important to understand that they are at risk as well.

Was the increase only among young black men or were there increases in young black women too?
Actually, if we were to look at the most recent data, some of it suggests some decreases in the rates of suicide among black males and an increase in that of black females. But that data doesn't represent a dramatic shift because when you talk about black females and suicide, you're talking less than two cases per 100,000. So any slight increase in the numbers looks like a large jump in the data. Suicide among blacks is still primarily a young and male phenomenon.

In a recent interview, Dr. Alvin Poussaint said that it's possible that the rates of black male suicides could be underestimated because of so-called "victim-precipitated homicide" incidents, wherein someone engages in behavior that will likely get them killed, like provoking a police officer. Do you agree with that?
I would caution any jump to conclusions with situations such as those because it is very difficult to prove the person's intent, particularly in the suicide-by-cop cases, when someone engages with police in a way that causes the police to fire on them. It's hard to figure out in that case whether or not the person meant to die that way. But there could be an underestimation of behaviors among young black men, or men in general, in which they understand that death could be a likely result of that behavior and engage in them anyway. To knowingly engage in behavior that in all likelihood will result in mortal harm, that could be considered suicidal. But I'd caution against suggesting that the data on black male suicide is inaccurate because of those cases, particularly the suicide-by-cop cases, which don't happen very often.

Are black men less likely to seek treatment for mental-health issues?
Yes, for a variety of reasons, including their attitudes toward health-care providers and attitudes toward the efficacy of those services. The bigger challenge is redrawing black masculinity in general, and the ways in which men perceive what it means to seek help for mental-health issues. The degree to which we can reduce the stigma around seeking help, and get men to understand that it isn't weak to seek help for your issues will greatly affect our ability to reach that community.

Positive Thought for the Week

"Change is the engine of the empowered life; if you are not willing to tap into the wellspring of your existence, to accept change, you will never move beyond your present shores."

-Author unknown

Did You Know?

Between the 1970's and 1999 the rate of suicide among black males climbed from 7.9 per 100,000 in 1970 to 10.9in 1997, compared to a modest increase in the rate for all blacks during the same period. Furthermore, since the 1970's, the rate of increase in suicides among black males in their twenties has been alarmingly steady. Source: Lay My Burden Down, Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African Americans, Dr. Alvin Pouissant and Amy Alexander

Don't Believe the Hype!

Hype: Teenage pregnancy is a runaway problem in the African American community.

Fact: African Americans ages 15 to 19 experienced the steepest decline in birth rates—42 percent—from 118 per 1,000 women in 1991 to 68 in 2002. Among African Americans ages 15 to 17, birth rates dropped by 52 percent between 1991 and 2002.
Source: Advocates for Youth

The Literati: A Crisis in the Mental Health of Black America

Suicide has always been a hush-hush topic in the African-American community; nothing silences a conversation more suddenly than talk of someone who has taken their own life, whether a family member or friend. With the publication of Lay My Burden Down, Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans in 2000, the veil of secrecy and inherited shame was lifted and the subject was put out in the public arena. Its authors, Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint and Amy Alexander, offer a convincing, cogent and relentlessly grievous account as to the myriad reasons so many African-Americans suffer from depression and other mental health issues and how those reasons lay the groundwork for the ultimate act of self-aggression: suicide. In particular, and certainly disturbing, is the suicidal trend of black males in America, which tripled between the 1980’s and the end of the twentieth-century, according to the authors. The common element of this trend is the loss of hope, a virtue that historically underpinned the ability of blacks to overcome the legacy of discrimination, segregation and unequal justice. Says Poussaint and Alexander: “…the realities of modern life have begun to undermine the historic adoptions, the coping strategies that are part of the African-American culture.” Lay My Burden Down requires the immediate and consistent attention from anybody who senses the urgency of self-destructive behaviors in a family member or friend and is a must-read for policy chieftains, church leaders and grass-roots organizations.

An Interview with Rev. James David Manning

This interview was conducted by W. Eric Croomes on Friday, October 31, 2008 regarding Manning's comments on Senator Barack Obama.

Blog Archive

About the Editor

My photo
Arlington, Texas, United States
W. Eric Croomes is a writer and playwright based in Irving, Texas and a native of Phoenix, Arizona. Eric is a graduate of Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, earning a Bachelor of Arts in religion and sociology and is founder and executive director of Millennium Men of Color, a non-profit black male advocacy group. In 2002, Eric self-published Dance in the Dark, Poetic Reflections on Love and Culture, a collection of his original poems and essays on love and relationship in the African-American tradition. Three to Eight, a play examining the hours when most teens become pregnant and most juvenile crime is committed, was Eric’s first theatrical release and debuted at the 2004 Black N Blues one act play festival at the African-American museum in Dallas. Brotha2Brotha, Becoming Healthy Men from the Inside Out, a spiritual primer for men of color, was released in September, 2006. Eric’s next book, Thoughts in Black and Male, is slated for release in spring 2008. COMING SOON: THEVILLAGEREPORT.NET Visit Eric at

Trademark Info

The Village Report with W. Eric Croomes is a registered trademark of The Apple Tree Group. All content authored by W. Eric Croomes is Copyrighted 2008.

January 19, 2008 issue of Golfweek Magazine

January 19, 2008 issue of Golfweek Magazine
and I didn't say 1958!