FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. Today we digest some startling numbers on suicide rates for African-Americans. The most recent numbers from the American Association of Suicidology show that suicide is the third leading cause of death among black youth after homicides and accidents. And while whites may be twice as likely as African-Americans to complete suicide, the rate of suicide is growing faster among African-American youth than the rate among whites.
Today as part of our series on mental health, we'll talk about these disturbing trends with Dr. Alvin Poussaint. He's a professor of psychiatry at Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston. He co-authored "Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans." Also with us, Donna Barnes; she is the president and co-founder of the National Organization For People of Color Against Suicide. Dr. Poussaint and Donna, thanks for joining us.
Dr. ALVIN POUSSAINT (Harvard Medical School): Thank you.
Ms. DONNA BARNES (Organization For People of Color Against Suicide): Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: So Dr. Poussaint, let me start with you first. I understand there was a significant increase in suicides among African-Americans between 1980 and 1995. Tell us about those statistics.
Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, I think the spike was mostly among young black men, 15 to 24 years of age. Way back in the 1950s the rate was like about five and now it's up to like 12.2, and it kind of peaked. It went very high during 1990 and the year 2000. So that was of some concern - that is, the reasons for the peak at that age, except there was not clear explanation for it. But it's a warning sign that like a lot of other things going with black people, that young black males in particular are under a great deal of stress and are suffering from depression and feeling useless and helpless. And many are deciding to take their own lives. And not - you know, there used to be a strong taboo in the black community about taking your own life, which I think now is disappearing, even though people don't like talking about suicide.
On the other hand, among black women the rate has been pretty steady and is rather low. The black male rate is about close to five times the rate among black women.
CHIDEYA: Do we know if these increases that we saw between the '80s and the '90s are continuing today, or have things leveled out a bit?
Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, they leveled out. I don't know what they are at the moment because there's a delay in getting the statistics. But they were highest in 1990 and the year 2000 - and then 2000. In 2003, 2004 they dropped a little bit. But they still remain quite high.
CHIDEYA: You mentioned that, you know, the feelings of just hopelessness are - you know, suicide, obviously, and hopelessness are very much related. Why specifically do you think young black men would be in that position of feeling that things were so desperate there was no reason to go on at all?
Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, I think a lot of things, you know, going on, there's so many - it's kind of multilayered. You may have more young men under stress in the black community. We have more single parent homes in the black community than ever before, like 70 percent of homes. Many of these young men are having trouble navigating the system, just very huge high school dropout rates of over 50 percent, sometimes 75 percent, high rates of incarceration, you know, up like close to nine to 10 times what it was in the 1950s, and the surgeon general lists incarceration itself as a risk factor for committing suicide. And then with all the dilemmas that go with being an inmate, not being able to make it, leads to a lot of stress and depression. The violence in the black community leads to a lot of stress and depression and post traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
All of these add up. We know that the most likely cause of most depression - of most suicides is chronic depression and other mental illnesses. So I think all of them are kind of combining to lead to this - not symptom, a fatal symptom of many of these young men deciding, well, I'll just take myself out. And sometimes they do it via homicide too, I might say.
CHIDEYA: Well, let me bring Donna into this conversation. You were personally affected by this issue. Tell us what happened to your son.
Ms. BARNES: My son was away at school and he actually took his own life in 1990, during the period that Dr. Poussaint was talking about, that the rate had increased substantially. And I had no idea that he had these thoughts of suicide, of course, being away from him. But when I look back at it, there's a possibility that he might have been suffering from either situational depression or some form of depression, because I can remember how he might have had disturbed sleep.
I could call him in the afternoon at his dorm and he would be sleeping and maybe not in class. So he wasn't concentrating on his studies. He probably wasn't sleeping that well. I do remember some bouts of anger, which are symptoms of depression. And me not knowing that those were symptoms left me in the dark. So when I got the phone call that he was missing from his dorm room - I mean there's a whole story behind that - but when I got the call I was shocked. I had no idea what suicide was all about, had no idea. I was just totally taken by surprise.
If someone had told me that my son was thinking of suicide, I would have told them that they didn't know what they were talking about, because he seemed like a very happy-go-lucky child. He smiled all the time. He was always telling jokes. He was always trying to make people feel comfortable in his presence. And so I think he might have had what we call masking suicide or laughing depression, where you hide it and you don't show it and you don't share it with people, because oftentimes young kids, they don't really understand what they are going through. They don't understand why they cannot function, why they cannot participate in school like they are supposed to, because they don't get it. They don't get that they are suffering from depression. They don't have that knowledge.
So it's important for us to educate communities and educate parents so that they'll know and they can help their child through these periods that they are going through.
CHIDEYA: Now, it must have been an incredible shock to you to find out first of all that your son was dead, and secondly that he'd taken his own life. And so when you found that out, what kind of resources did you have to deal with your own grief and to be part of a community of people who knew what you were going through? Did you know where to turn?
Ms. BARNES: Absolutely no. I had nowhere to turn. I did not know where to go. There was nothing within my community. I would ask people if they knew someone who was suicide, did this ever happen in our community before, maybe when I was a kid, did it ever happen? People said no, we've never heard of anyone taking their own life. I had nobody to talk to, and I had to go outside of my community to find a support group. And even when I was there, I was the only black person in attendance.
And I knew that the rates had gone up, because after my son took his own life I started reading everything I could. And there was nothing in the bookstores, so I'd have to go to the library. And all of that has changed now. Now you can go into a bookstore and find some information on suicide. So I read everything that I could and I found out that the suicide rate had increased substantially. And so that - that disturbed me, that the black community was totally in the dark and knew nothing about it.
CHIDEYA: Well, I want to set the stage for people who are just tuning in. You are listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya, and we're talking about suicide rates among young African-Americans. We've got Dr. Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School and Donna Barnes of the National Organization For People of Color Against Suicide. Donna, in a second I want to ask you about how you started your organization. But Dr. Poussaint, first off, if there is someone who finds themselves in a position of having lost a loved one to suicide, where should they start to turn?
Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, I think they should look for support groups. I think the black community, because of NOPCAS, the Donna Barnes organization, is becoming more aware of suicide and they are breaking the silence about suicide. And also there's a lot of educational programs to increase the awareness of people and families about the symptoms of depression. So I think in a lot of community health centers and so on you can find support groups. If they don't have support groups, then people should get support groups for people who have lost loved ones, even from other medical illnesses, but particularly from suicide, because there's so much guilt on the part of survivors. Frequently they're asking themselves what could I have done to prevent the suicide, am I the reason that the person committed suicide?
So they go through a particular, unique form of grief, and so support groups and community health centers and hospitals and clinics, sometimes they're not all black, but that's okay. But you can find one, particularly those connected with mental health centers and mental hospitals.
CHIDEYA: Donna, how did you go about - I mean, starting any kind of organization is incredibly daunting, and so how did you go about starting the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide?
Ms. BARNES: Well, I became outspoken about suicide after losing my son, and the Boston Globe did an article on myself and my story, and it was on the front page of the Sunday paper, and because of that I was getting phone calls from other people who were in the same situation that I was in.
And one particular woman, Lois Delflaro(ph), had experienced a suicide among her son, and she was wondering what we could do. Can we do something? And I knew of two other people who lost sons also, Doris Smith(ph) in Atlanta and Les Franklin(ph) in Denver, Colorado, and I contacted them and asked them if they would go out to Teaneck with me and spend a day with some of the families who have lost someone to suicide.
And we did that, and we figured just a few people would show up, and there was standing room only. About 35 to 40 people showed up, and it wasn't just the families, it was the funeral director who buried the children, because there were several children in the Teaneck area who had died by suicide that particular year.
CHIDEYA: In New Jersey - Teaneck, New Jersey.
Ms. BARNES: Right, Teaneck, New Jersey. There were teachers, there was lawyers. Many people who were influential in the community showed up at that conference, and we decided that they were hungry for information and perhaps we should form an organization and do this on an annual basis, and that's what we did, and that was in 1998. And we've been around for 10 years now.
CHIDEYA: What are some of the things that inspire you to keep going, because, you know, there must be so many people who you've touched over time?
Ms. BARNES: Well, believe me, this is something that I did not dream I'd be doing, and I'd love so much to get out of it, but I keep getting calls. I mean, we have a support group at Howard University, at the mental health clinic, for families who have lost someone to suicide, and I've been doing that for five years.
And it gets, you know, tiring, but you keep getting calls. Unfortunately my support group is growing and growing and growing, and this is so unfortunate. I'd like to see a time when NOPCAS is no longer needed because we're doing the things that we're supposed to do in the community, and everybody is educated, and the rate is going down, but I'll be doing this until we're not needed anymore.
CHIDEYA: Dr. Poussaint, you wrote a book with Amy Alexander called "Lay My Burden Down," and both of you, you and Amy Alexander, lost brothers to suicide. What was it like, you know...
Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, not exactly. I call my brother a slow suicide. Amy and I's brothers had almost exactly the same history, being heroin addicts. They both had a psychotic break, which it was diagnosed as schizophrenic. They both had been incarcerated and were doing inter - a lot of self-destructive behavior.
Amy's brother actually did directly commit suicide by jumping off a building. My brother died from an injection, not quite an overdose, but he got acute meningitis from the injection, and he died. So a slow suicide.
CHIDEYA: So what you're saying is that he essentially gave up on life. He didn't commit suicide in a traditional sense, but he had just kind of...
Dr. POUSSAINT: Yeah, he was on a downward - kind of a downward path and devalued his life, and that's one the elements in suicide, is a person devalues their life, kind of feels worthless, so they're doing a lot of high-risk types of things that may lead to their death.
CHIDEYA: When you take into account that that's one way that people, you know, they may not put a gun to their head, but they do seek death, in a sense, the problem is probably much larger than even the statistics would indicate.
Dr. POUSSAINT: Definitely. We don't know, for instance, how many overdoses of drugs among young black men, and it's very high, how many of them are suicides, in fact. They don't get counted as suicides. They get counted as an accidental overdose of injection drugs usually.
How many young men who put themselves in situations where it's very likely that they're going to get shot to death are actually committing suicide? There is such a thing as what we call victim-precipitated homicide, which is a suicide.
The most classic example would be suicide by cop, which you read about in the newspaper from time to time, where people wanted to be shot to be killed because they were suicidal, but they didn't want to do it themselves. And sometimes they don't want to do it themselves because there's still a stigma attached to committing suicide, so they'd rather have someone else kill them or have it seem like an accident, that they really didn't want to do it, but yet they were suicidal.
CHIDEYA: Donna, just in closing, if there's someone listening right now who is considering suicide, as your son considered and went through with it, what would you say to them?
Ms. BARNES: I would say to them to please tell somebody. Tell an adult, tell somebody so that they'll know that they're going through it and ask for the help, because nobody wants to die. Absolutely no one wants to die. They just want the pain to go away, and we as adults and parents need to know that they're suffering from pain and that, you know, you shouldn't make a permanent decision for a temporary problem.
So please, tell someone that you're thinking of it, or call 1-800-273-TALK. That's 1-800-273-TALK. That's a national crisis line where they can get help.
CHIDEYA: Well, I want to thank you both so much for joining us.
Dr. POUSSAINT: Thank you.
Ms. BARNES: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: We've been talking with Donna Barnes, the president and co-founder of the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide. She joined us from our headquarters in Washington, D.C. And also Dr. Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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