CDC: Suicide Rate for Black Men on the Rise

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report suicide among young African-American men is on the rise. But one expert argues that data from historically black colleges is underrepresented due to the stigma attached to suicide in the black community. Ed Gordon talks with Donna Holland Barnes, president of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide, about suicide and young African Americans.

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FARAI CHIDEYA:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS AND NOTES. Families who see their children off to college are proud, but should they be worried as well? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported suicide among young, African-American men is on the rise. Donna Holland Barnes is president of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide. She also studies suicide at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She says there's no data about suicide deaths on campuses of historically black colleges and universities because of the stigma attached to suicide in the black community. NPR's Ed Gordon spoke with Barnes about suicide in young, African-Americans.

Dr. DONNA HOLLAND BARNES (President, The National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide): Suicide really doesn't know any color. It's a matter of not having answers, being frustrated. I mean, if you want to talk about the black culture, these kids probably didn't come from the traditional, black neighborhoods that we once knew of--those neighborhoods that had a commitment to family, a commitment to school, involvement in the community, involvement in church. A lot of those communities have dissipated, and so these kids, they come without that background.

ED GORDON reporting:

You have been thrown into this fight, if you will, based on a very personal attachment. Your son committed suicide some 15 years ago. Before that, did this subject ever cross your mind? Did you ever speak of it with your son?

Dr. HOLLAND BARNES: I spoke of it once with him, but you know--and, of course, you have your regrets--not to the extent that I should have, because I had no idea what was going on in his mind. He was at a university and withdrew after his second year. And when he withdrew, I applauded him for making that assessment that college is not for him at the time, because what kids do is they try to maintain and stay there when they don't want to, and sometimes, they ultimately end up committing suicide. And I actually said that to him, and he just looked at me. And all the time, from looking at his letters to his pen pal, all the time he had been contemplating it, and I did not know that. And the problem is, he kept it to himself.

So, no, I did not know anything about suicide at the time. I did not know anything about depression, anything of any weight, if you would. And, so now I educated myself and got my Ph.D. in sociology, because I really think that suicide is a public health problem, and we need to look at it from an environmental issue more so than a mental health issue, because it's the environment that leads to the mental health issue.

GORDON: I would also think one of the things that you have found out in this study, and, in particular, dealing with the grief I'm sure that continues with the death of your son--and you mentioned it there--and in particular, with black males, men in general, but black males specifically, we do keep so much locked within, has to be a growing problem in trying to identify the symptoms and signs.

Dr. HOLLAND BARNES: Yes, I'm on this bandwagon that everybody needs to be educated on how to recognize those signs and what to do. And the problem with my son is he really wouldn't talk about his depression, because he didn't know what it was.

A lot of these kids, when they have these feelings, when they can't get up in the morning, when they can't be responsible, when they can't hold on to commitments, they don't always understand that it could be depression setting in. They think it's just them, so self-loathing sets in. Then, they start not liking themselves, and then suicide becomes an option because they don't get it.

And so, if they just talked about their feelings, talked to their other friends, they'd be surprised. If they talked to their male friends about the thought of suicide, how much those friends would rally around them, because many of them have been through it also, but overcame it.

GORDON: What would you tell parents who have children going into pre-teen and the teen years, and obviously, the formative years of the early twenties in terms of what they should look for, and assistance they may be able to lend?

Dr. HOLLAND BARNES: When in doubt, just go on and talk to your child about depression. Talk to them about suicide. Talk to them about all of those things, because it's not going to put the idea in their heads. Kids already know that they can kill themselves. They know that they can kill other people. So, just talking to them about it will not necessarily put the idea in their head.

What it will do is make them feel very comfortable in discussing it with you so that you're not going to pass judgment or make them feel even worse for thinking that.

GORDON: What would you like people to take from this who, perhaps, have not thought about suicide and have not thought about that it is a real and recurring problem, particularly among African-Americans.

Dr. HOLLAND BARNES: That it's important to really talk about it, and it's important to help your kids with the coping skills. Because to prevent suicide in most cases, it is to prevent unhappiness. And since that is next to impossible, we must try to help kids understand that happy people are not necessarily people with the fewest problems, but they're the people with the best coping skills. So, help your child build on those coping skills.

GORDON: Let me ask you one other thing. You are affiliated with Howard University, and one of the things--particularly among HBCUs and other black colleges and universities--oft times they have not had to deal with this in the same way that white institutions have, and they're playing catch-up, if you will. What of these institutions and the available help networks on these campuses?

Dr. HOLLAND BARNES: All institutions, number one, should have a policy on how to handle someone in suicidal crisis, and they also should have training programs where you train faculty, staff, residents. And it's not training people to be counselors. You save that for the professionals. It's training people on how to question, how to persuade and how to refer them to help.

GORDON: Donna Holland Barnes, thank you so much for sharing a very personal and a very important story with us.

Dr. HOLLAND BARNES: Thank you for having me, Ed.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Ed Gordon speaking with Donna Holland Barnes, co-founder and president of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide.

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