A personal tragedy, a nationwide trend Suicide: Young black men are taking their lives at an unprecedented rate. Worse, society has been slow to recognize the trend and try to stop it.

December 09, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

About 3 o'clock every morning, Anna Roberts awakes in her West Baltimore rowhouse to face the darkness and her despair.

It has happened, she says, without fail since March 4. That was the night her only son, Antwon, 18, hanged himself.

Antwon's death came seemingly without warning. His mother knew he was distressed over the deaths of two Job Corps friends in a Silver Spring train wreck Feb. 16 that killed 11. She never imagined that distress would lead to suicide.

"I don't know what was in his mind, why he couldn't come to me," Roberts says now. "We blame ourselves. We have guilt. Why didn't my child come to me?"

The personal tragedy that has plunged Anna Roberts into grief forms part of a disturbing national trend: Young black men are committing suicide at an unprecedented rate.

From 1980 to 1994, while the national suicide rate was stable, the rate among young black males ages 15 to 19 soared by 196 percent (compared with 24 percent for whites). The rate for black men ages 20 to 24 increased 25 percent (5 percent for whites).

What is worse, because suicide generally is less common among blacks than whites, society has been slow to recognize the deadly trend and seek to stop it.

Suicide is the third-leading killer of young black men, behind homicides and accidents. But black youth suicide gets little attention, partly because homicide claims eight times as many lives in the 15-to-24 age group. More than 4,200 young black men across the nation died in homicides and 556 in suicides in 1994, the latest year for which a racial breakdown is available.

"It's an issue that we put our heads in the sand about. People fear talking about it," said Henry Westray Jr., Maryland's suicide prevention coordinator. "But it's really talking about it that prevents it. If you see a young person who seems depressed or bothered, ask if they've thought about killing themselves."

Kenya Napper Bello of Atlanta publishes a newsletter called "Black Men Don't Commit Suicide." Her point: Black men do commit suicide, and they need help. Bello's husband, Razak, a 27-year-old graduate student who was manic-depressive, jumped to his death from a hotel's 32nd floor in 1994.

"People are amazed that I'm talking about this issue," she said. "They say, 'Black people don't commit suicide. Only crazy white people do that.' "

White males, in fact, accounted for 73 percent of 31,142 U.S. suicides in 1994. Native American men had the highest suicide rate; black women the lowest. Gay males and lesbians may commit up to 30 percent of youth suicides.

No one is sure why whites kill themselves at nearly twice the rate of blacks, who endure negative racial stereotypes and a disproportionate share of poverty. Comedian Dick Gregory has joked: "You can't kill yourself by jumping out of the basement."

Two theories about the difference: Blacks are more religious, and African-American culture has a stronger taboo against suicide.

But, beginning in the mid-1980s, the suicide rate has risen so rapidly among young black men ages 15 to 24 that it may soon overtake the suicide rate of young white males, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Researchers cannot explain why more young black men are killing themselves, but they suggest that several factors may play a role: the 1980s boom in crack cocaine-related violence; the weakening of black church, family and community ties; and the sense that American culture does not value the lives of black men.

Profound hopelessness

In assessing suicide risks, psychologists look for depression or other mental illness; drug or alcohol abuse; previous suicide attempts; impulsive, aggressive behavior; and ready access to lethal means, such as guns.

The common thread in young men's suicide seems to be a profound sense of hopelessness.

Freeman F. Riley, 24, a Louisiana security guard, was despondent over the death of his daughter in February 1995 from sudden infant death syndrome. Eight days later, in his mother's living room, he fired one fatal shot to his head from his .357-caliber Magnum work gun.

His widow, Shirley Riley, says she couldn't see the suicide warning signs that she now recognizes: Her husband once made a suicide attempt as a 13-year-old. He was often depressed, although he wouldn't say so. He just said his job got on his nerves.

"I don't think African-American men want to admit they have a problem," she said. "I know he worried a lot and had mood swings, but I was always trying to keep things peaceful. He needed counseling, medication. Mental illness to me is just like any other sickness. It's something that can be dealt with."

Blacks seek professional help and call crisis hot lines less than others, psychologists say. Suicide is preventable, they add, but prevention begins with talking.

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