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Children, suicide and race

When my son was 7, he tried to jump to his death.  He was climbing our stairs to a landing twelve feet above a tiled floor.  When he got there, he put his foot over the bannister and tried to launch himself into the air.  I was right behind him, grabbed him and yanked him back to safety.  As I held him he struggled, sobbing, “Let me go, let me go.  I want to die.”

My heart was pounding, time slowed and everything I saw and heard became sharper and more vivid.  There is no single word to describe how I felt.  It was some combination of shock, horror, disbelief, anguish, inadequacy and panic.  My young son, who until then had been school phobic with nightmares and sadness, had veered sharply into new, horrifying territory. It was his first suicide attempt, but not his last.  He got older and more sophisticated in his methods and I felt that combination of shock and anguish each time.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for children increased 64% from 2006 to 2016.  The rate for young children rose even higher. But the rise in suicides for African American children outpaces all other groups, rising 71% in the same time period.  Just like me, their mothers and fathers no doubt feel unprepared, in shock and disbelief.  We wonder how to make sense of this.

The Washington Post article, “He was happy. So far as I know” tells the story of 11 year old Rylan Hagan, an African American boy, who hanged himself last November. His mother found him and is devastated each hour and each day.

Rylan was loved, he had friends and did well in school and sports, even winning a trip to Disneyland that he never had a chance to take.  His mother is searching for clues she might have missed in the music he listened to, the video games he played and the movies he watched.  Once, when she asked him to do chores, he reacted emotionally, saying he wanted to kill himself. She wonders if she missed an important clue.

Parents look for answers everywhere after a suicide attempt and certainly after a completed suicide. Since we can’t look inside our children’s minds, we look at the things they surround themselves with, hoping to find leads.  We hope we will know it when, if, we see it.  A lot of the time, however, we don’t find what we are looking for.

Researchers don’t know why the rate of suicide for children has jumped and they can only guess why the rate of suicide for black children is even higher. They are alarmed by this spike and we should be too.  Researchers do suspect that racism plays a part as does an idea, a myth, that suicide is not a “black problem” and black children don’t kill themselves, says Rheeda L. Walker, a psychology professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. Myths like these mean that African American parents can be slower to get mental health care for their children.

Have you ever noticed that myths seem to congregate in groups? We believe groups of myths about food such as eating before swimming causes cramps and Twinkies don’t have an expiration date.  We believe clumps of things about animals including that toads cause warts or bats are blind.  People will still tell you that spicy food causes ulcers and carrots improve vision. No matter how often they are debunked, some myths seem to live on and on. If we believe one myth on a topic, we are more inclined to believe others.

We have a lot of myths about mental health, too, and they can encourage us to act or delay.  The one parents hear most often is that mental health issues stem from bad parenting.  Another myth is that mental health problems are a sign of weakness or only a phase.  Just wait, we are told, he will grow out of it. People will say with great authority, repeating common and false ideas, that therapy for kids is a waste of time and considering medication will lead to overmedicating. Just as people continue to believe that teaching sex education in schools leads to more sexual activity in teens, many also believe that talking about suicide will put that thought into a child’s head.  None of these myths are true.

Some of these myths are stronger and more persuasive for some groups of parents than others, but most of us buy into one or two.  No parent should be faulted for what they don’t know.  No one wants to believe that small people, children, can have big illnesses.  Unless you have a personal or family experience as a point of reference, myths guide us away from realizing what’s going on with our child. At least until it smacks us in the face.

Nikki Webber Allen created I Live For, a storytelling intiative to end stigma around depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders in teenagers and young adults of color.  When her 22 year old nephew took his life, Allen realized that remaining silent about her own depression had also robbed her of the opportunity to talk to him about his own mental health issues. Allen, an Emmy winning producer, is creating a documentary to tell the individual stories of people of color who have struggled with anxiety and depression.  She hopes it will help boost understanding and dispel myths.

When my son made his first suicide attempt, I looked for other parents like me.  They were very hard to find and in my search I was often met with disbelief that young children could be suicidal or depressed.  Even my son’s pediatrician and teachers were unhelpful, telling me I’d have a hard time finding other parents who were going through the same thing.  We need to find each other and tell our stories out loud. We all need to ask why suicide rates for children, especially African American children, are going up.  Parents are looking for answers. That’s what we do.


A Letter to Anyone Considering an Inpatient Stay

You are much stronger than you believe you are.

I used to see having a stay in a psych unit as a sign of weakness. To me, it meant you were no longer the kind of strong you thought you were. I guess in a way I was right. But when I say I was right, I mean that you aren’t the strong you once were: you are stronger. You’ve learned to accept that sometimes, you need to get away for a while, and take care of yourself. You’ve learned that accepting and receiving help for your symptoms isn’t selfish or some terrible thing. It means that you are taking necessary steps towards mental and emotional wellness. Take pride in that.

I just ended an 18 day stay at a psych unit. I pushed it off for so long, but the pain kept building up. The depression, anxiety, and unprocessed trauma constantly running through my mind were torturous. I was having nightmares. Night after endless night I’d wake up either in a panic, in tears, or both. That started leading to my insomnia. Not sleeping for days on end, terrified of what happens behind my eyelids. The depression and anxiety came crashing in, each day worse than the day before, due to the lack of sleep.

I felt out of control. My trauma had taught me that silence was my enemy. It taught me that I wasn’t worth much at all. Fortunately, I got to get a lot of my trauma out of my head, having been able to talk about my feelings every day. I was under constant monitoring, and although at times I hated it, this stay made me realize, even more than ever, that everyone deserves time to be human. That even those who put on a brave face for everyone else has to get the help they need.

Inpatient stays are scary. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. You have a lot of time to think. You have time to realize just how hard life has been lately. But you also get to talk through and process a lot of things you’ve been burying deep into yourself. Things you never thought you’d share, things you thought you’d take to the grave.

Not every unit is suitable for every kind of person. I personally loved the unit I was on (as much as you can love a psych unit), but not everyone there found it helpful. Regardless, you must try to trust the process. You must try to get the help you need, no matter who you work with. Advocate for yourself. Speak up for what you need, but also what your values are.

If you are currently struggling, I want to let you know that your feelings are valid. A lot of the time, we don’t hear that often enough. You have every right to be upset, mad, depressed, anxious, or tired. But I promise you, it can get better. You can find the light at the end of the tunnel of darkness you’ve been in for so long. It’s right in front of you. There will be obstacles. There will be barriers. But you are strong, brave, and resilient.

I believe in you, even if you are currently lacking the belief in yourself. Remember, an inpatient stay doesn’t equal weakness. It equals a strength that you never believed you had. And when you realize that, you have the power to accomplish your goals. I hope this letter has helped you. And I hope you realize the amazing things you are capable of.


Rachel is a young adult who hopes to someday become a peer mentor or a peer specialist. They are currently working on writing and publishing a book of poetry.