Suicide and African Americans: A Secret Epidemic Unveiled

2013 NABJ Salute To Excellence Award winner for best specialty reporting, in the magazines under 1 million circulation division.

At first blush, it’s difficult to fathom.

Lively, attractive and blessed with that youthful countenance Black folks are known for, it’s hard to detect the kind of turmoil Karen Denise Caldwell has lived through.

Yet underpinning the satisfying life the Detroiter has carved out-married 33 years with two daughters, a physician and psychologist-is a dark phase she only recently began to share, one long considered an anomaly among African Americans.

As a teenager, she was fraught with depression and thoughts of suicide after her family relocated from Detroit’s east side to Belleville during the 1967 riots.


Her life on a farm with her grandparents, who didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, was consumed with the daily tedium of farming, housework-and loneliness.

It was so unbearable that one day, when she was about 13, she tried to end her life.

“My world kind of crashed,” says Caldwell, recalling the circumstances that drove her to turn on a propane-gas stove without igniting the burners, hoping to fall asleep and never wake up again.

“Everything that I knew changed,” she says. “There was no emotional nurturing. There was too much work to be done. I was just so unhappy. I didn’t want to be here anymore.”

Throughout history, African Americans have had lower rates of suicide than other groups in the United States, but starting 40 years ago the trend shifted.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, African-American suicide-related deaths spiked more than 60 percent, unlike any other ethnic or racial group, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And a study released in May, “Silence Is Not Golden: Attitudes Towards Suicide in the African American Community,” indicates the trend continues upward.

One African-American dies by suicide every 4.5 hours, and suicide is the third leading cause of death among young Black men after homicides and accidents.

The suicide uptick also is troubling among African-American college students, ages 18 to 29, who are less likely to tell anyone they are ideating suicide.

Caldwell says God spoke to her, and she turned off the stove. But no one will ever know what happened with a 7-year-old boy from Detroit’s west side who in May looped a belt around his neck, secured it to a bunk bed and snuffed out his young life.

Closer Reality

His death brought closer to home the reality of suicide in the African-American community. Then, late that same month, when new details emerged surrounding federal accusations against Bernard Kilpatrick, the former mayor’s father, the name of successful businessman Abner McWhorter III also came up.

McWhorter, the youngest person to ever obtain a city contract who had been featured in Black Enterprise magazine for his success even as a teen, also died by suicide last August after an alleged Ponzi scheme, a business deal involving a $100,000 payoff to Bernard Kilpatrick, the former mayor’s father, to get a $10 million loan from the city’s pension fund to buy and renovate 1,400 houses, went bad. He was 41.

McWhorter was well known in Detroit. Other occasional high-profile cases of African Americans who died by suicide have shocked society over the years, such as ’70s soul music icon Donny Hathaway, R&B songstress Phyllis Hyman and James Dungy, the 18-year-old son of former National Football League coaching great Tony Dungy. 

After he died, friends reported Def Jam Records label mogul, Shakir Stewart suffered from depression. Similar reports were made about NFL players Dave Duerson, Kendrick McKinley, Andre Waters and, most recently, Don Cornelius, the creator and host of “Soul Train.”
But those deaths were somebody else’s crosses to bear, somewhere else. And the sobering effect of their deaths apparently has not been enough to shatter the notion among African Americans that we don’t claim depression, because making it past the horrors of slavery, segregation, and discrimination-affirms that anything can be overcome.

And suicide, after all, is a “White thing” that, for the most part, we just don’t do.

The Rising Tide

However, Metro Detroit professionals-from a funeral home director, mental health experts to a minister-say that’s an unfounded and dangerous myth because they regularly encounter suicide in their daily work.

“I’ve been in the business 54 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” laments O’Neil Swanson, president and CEO of two Detroit funeral homes and one in Pontiac that bear his name.

“When I was growing up, in our community, it was rare,” the elder Swanson says of African Americans who die by suicide.

But over the years, his company has served increasing numbers of families that lost loved ones to self-inflicted gunshots, intentional drug overdoses and carbon monoxide poisoning. He’s lost count of the suicides he’s seen so many.

“I don’t have the answer as to why this is happening, but Lord knows I’m certainly praying,” Swanson says of this troubling trend. “I’m very concerned about my community.”

His concern is professional-and personal.  About 20 years ago, Swanson’s close friend who had struggled through three marriages and a faltered career, went into his closed garage, started his vehicle, left it running, and became yet another African American to die by suicide.

“The only reason I have been able to do this down through the years is because of my faith in God,” Swanson says of his profession as a funeral director. “It gives me strength. Otherwise, I couldn’t. This is my profession, but I do feel for people.”

He may need to keep holding onto his faith, and the numbers of suicides continue to rise.

“We will do anything to not feel the real, deep-rooted pain we are in,” says Terrie Williams.

A New York public relations doyenne who has worked with high-profile celebrities such as Miles Davis, Eddie Murphy, Janet Jackson and Anita Baker, Williams revealed her own 30-year battle with depression in her book, “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting.”

Her depression felt like “a huge weight, invisible but gigantic, pressing down on me, almost crushing me.”

Williams says many people have loved ones who died by suicide, and they didn’t realize it because it looks like something else.  

“We don't commit suicide in the traditional manner.” Oftentimes, it is disguised as reckless behavior. “If you belong to a gang and you go into enemy territory, you know what will happen. If you don't take prescribed medications for a condition, it is slow suicide. If you have promiscuous, unprotected sex, it is slow suicide.”

Williams speculates that Whitney Houston’s accidental drowning back in February, after years of cocaine abuse, was a slow suicide. Generations of young people could take a similar path.

Consider the statistical red flags raised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide and other organizations that track social health.

More young Black females attempt suicide than young Black males, compared to their White female counterparts. Plus they’re more likely to actually die from their attempts than White girls, given their tendency to use firearms instead of pills, the usual way females choose to die.

Difficult to Detect

What is so insidious about these trends is that it’s much harder to detect when a young person may be in real emotional trouble than an adult, says Robert Williams, a Detroit family therapist who often sees young people who refuse to open up in counseling when their parents are present.

“People who are suicidal can be very clever at camouflaging their inner turmoil, but kids are the most clever,” says Robert Williams, who has practiced for nearly 40 years.

While some youth suddenly act out, retreat to their bedrooms, skip school, or smoke cigarettes as a cry for help, others don’t.

“They can act as if everything is all right,” Robert Williams explains. “If they don’t, if they give a sign that something is really wrong with them, they know someone will respond to stop the behavior. They’re scared of being punished or dragged off to a counselor or a boot camp or a juvenile detention center.”

In these uncertain economic times, they aren’t the only ones who are sometimes scared to death.

Although teenagers have traditionally been the largest population to ideate suicide to escape problems, Robert Williams says, he’s seeing more adults follow their lead. The shift is wreaking havoc on families, especially African-American families.

“You’ve got people losing their jobs and, with them, their ability to afford to take care of their most basic needs, let alone that vacation or pedicure or date night that might be just what they need to help cope,” Robert Williams explains.

Feeling Alone

In Detroit, the rate of unemployment is nearly 17 percent, more than double the national average. Caught in disparity are Detroit neighborhoods such as Brightmoor, where the population has dwindled more than 35 percent in the past decade while crime and blight grow like weeds.

The Rev. Spencer Ellis leads his 1,600-member Citadel of Praise in Brightmoor, and tries to instill hope there.

“As a pastor, I counsel people all the time who have contemplated or even tried to commit suicide,” says Ellis. “It’s always the same story. People feel like they’re all alone, like nobody cares.”

It never has been easy to be down and out, and Black in America. But the solidarity that existed among us during trying when “we were all kind of in the same condition” has vanished, Ellis explains. “Now, it seems like everybody’s scratching just [to survive],” he says. “It’s a ‘you get yours, I’ll get mine’ mentality.

“At the end of the day, as a pastor my role model is the Bible,” says Ellis. “I can’t come with a lot of psychiatry or psychology. My job is to get people to keep trusting in God.

“He will never leave us or forsake us. If you can hang in there, if you don’t give up, there is something better on the other side of your pain.”

Sadly, that’s a promise that will never come to pass for the 7-year-old who ended his on May 23. His parents’ recent separation, the reported bullying he endured from other children in his neighborhood and at Mark Murray Elementary, the charter school where he was a first grader, was too much.

If a young teenage Black girl can muster the wherewithal to try to end her life back in the early 1970s, Detroit-based clinical psychologist Tamieka Caldwell notes it’s no surprise younger children are following suit today.

“Nowadays, children have so much more access to information via the Internet and TV,” she says.

“Coping strategies are not things that are taught very well through the media at all. We constantly have all these celebrities who are criminals or they complete suicide or they’re drug addicts who are prominently featured in the media. And you never know what conversations children may overhear or share at school as well.”

Caldwell’s mother was the teenage girl who tried to end her life nearly 40 years ago. Today, Karen Denise Caldwell, the woman everyone calls “Niecey,” is a minister who runs a prayer support to help women overcome life’s struggles.

“I went through what I went through,” she says. “God knew that I would grow through it, and make it. Not everyone does.”


Facebook Comments