The Silent Killer


            “Every 10 minutes someone in the U.S. dies by suicide.  Every 19 minutes, someone is left to make sense of it,” according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.

            However in the African American community, many cannot make sense of the fact that from the 1980s to the early 1990s, the number of African American men between the ages of 15-24 committing suicide has increased by 83 percent according to the American Association of Suicidology.  And while Whites may still be twice as likely to commit suicide, suicide is still the third leading cause of death amongst men in the African American community.

            “As someone who studies this area, I wasn’t surprised in that Black men engage in suicidal behavior” said Sean Joe, Assistant Professor of Social Work at University of Michigan.  “I was surprised, though, by the nature of the suicide: both the means, the use of substance, and the exhibitionist aspect of it.”

            The exhibitionist aspect that Joe and many others are still distraught over is the suicide of Abraham Biggs, a 19-year-old Florida native who broadcasted his suicide over the Internet via his webcam, while viewers encouraged him to take his own life.  Biggs’ public suicide has many questioning if there is still a stigma in the African American community concerning suicide and mental illness, which is often the culprit in suicidal behavior.

            “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,” said Joe.

            To combat the false notion that African Americans do not suffer from mental illness or engage in suicidal behavior, entertainer/entrepreneur Juanita Johnson, known simply as JUANITA, became a driving force in developing the National Alliance of Mental Illness’ (NAMI) New Jersey initiative AACT-NOW!, which was created to assist African American individuals and families coping with mental illness by supplying them with advocacy, education and resources.

            JUANITA has been an advocate for removing the stigma of mental illness that exists in the African American community, which can be a leading cause of suicidal behavior.  Advocates such as JUANITA have made it their purpose to educate African Americans on the realities of mental illness and the need for them to seek treatment before the consequences become deadly.  She often speaks at anti-stigma and mental health events at institutions of higher learning, churches, festivals and health fairs.

            She is also extremely active with American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), coordinating the 2008 Out of the Darkness Community Walk, a fund-raising effort for programs aimed at suicide prevention.  “My goal is to show others that anything is possible,” said JUANITA.  “Be a survivor.”

            Surviving should be viewed as strength if African American men are to shed the stigma of mental health and suicide, said Joe.  “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 (the African American) community.”

Smith is publisher of Regal Black Men’s Magazine.

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