Like most days, my work day started at 9:00am with a Democratic Caucus Meeting. Before the meeting I had the most eventful ride on the state transit from the suburbs into the city. Some middle-aged Caucasian woman was on the phone all 50 minutes of the ride on the bus, cutting through the usually quiet route. She literally was having a board meeting and we were all attendees without a stake, so we all sat in silence as she bellowed loudly for the full stretch. Other bus riders were whispering and complaining. Some were laughing uncontrollably as she discussed strategies and even considered what I'd call a cruel delegation plan all within our hearing. As the bus pulled into the downtown area, she finally ended her conversation to thunderous applause that shook the entire bus.
As the bus got close to the Capitol, we had to make several stops to make way for police cars and ambulances. I came off the bus as usual in front of the Coverdell Legislative Building across from the Capitol, to my surprise all the ambulances were parked in front of the Capitol. I walked across the street, and sat down with the other aides at the meeting. As the leader gave instructions, Senator Emmanuel Jones received a call that a young black male who worked in the Legislative Building had committed suicide overnight, hanging himself somewhere on the fifth floor. The silence in the room was eerie for moments, as we all privately pondered, wondering if we knew this young man.
Death is always quite a difficult issue to deal with, more so when the cause of death is suicide. It is hard to understand why some people are driven down that path. There are lots of reasons, and I will not try to understand or even judge a suicidal person because their struggles are not mine. I am again reminded of the suicides of two prominent individuals who took their lives in the wake of the Madoff scandal. Madoff who is at the center of the entire debacle is not thinking of outing himself any time soon. He still believes he has many good years ahead of him, or he wouldn't be bargaining to keep his $7 million penthouse and other assets valued at almost $69 million. So what makes Madoff different from these individuals?
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, suicide is a preventable public health problem and was the 11th leading cause of death in the United States in 2004 accounting for 32,439 deaths. Suicidal behavior is complex and the risk factors for suicide include depression and mental disorder, prior suicide attempt, family history of suicide, firearms in the home, incarceration, family violence and stressful life events. Besides these factors, suicide has been linked to levels of certain neurotransmitters and serotonin levels in the brain. Suicidal individuals and victims of suicide usually have decreased levels of serotonin in their brains. Further, age and gender affect suicidal rates with males being more likely to commit suicide.
Another important factor affecting the rates of suicide include ethnicity. When race is used to evaluate susceptibility to suicide, African-American males fall into the category of individuals more likely to commit suicide. They are more likely to be homeless due to reasons not limited to poverty and military service, are disproportionately exposed to violence and the welfare system and are more likely to be incarcerated. Hence, these social factors along with a biological predisposition to suicide disproportionately put black men at risk for suicide.
Unfortunately, mental health issues have and still continue to be taboo topics in the African-American community. Certain crimes or certain behaviors are often perceived through the lens of race. Hence, when told about the occurrence of a crime there is a tendency to guess the race of the perpetrator based on the nature of the crime. As a result, suicide is not termed a "black" behavior. Nonetheless, the mentality that suicide only occurs in certain communities has not prevented suicide from been one of the major causes of death among African-American males. But there is still a huge stigma surrounding mental health in the African-American community and an unwillingness to discuss the issue. Erratic behavior that may be signs of suicide are often dismissed as a case of the blues or merely "acting out," when in reality the behavior may be a sign of impending doom.
We need to let our boys cry and do away with the mentality of homophobia that has crippled so many men who would otherwise get help for mental illness issues. Crying does not make a man a sissy. It is part of being human and is a necessary expression of humanity. The stigma associated with mental illness needs to be done away with, so affected individuals are empowered to seek help. Suicide should not be a cause of death, there are other options and life really could be worse.