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Commentary: Addressing Suicide in Our Community

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I am afraid to answer the phones in my psychiatric office again. The question is who will be next? Last month it was the famous model Noemie Lenoir (attempted suicide), a Morehouse student (completed suicide), and yes somebody else's child that we don't even know, completed suicide. Here is the reality: According to SAMHSA (U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) 30,000 (almost double that of homicides) people complete suicide a year. Daily there are 14 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 that complete suicide. Also, 90% of the people that kill themselves have a treatable disease called depression. Moreover, this is the 8th leading cause of death in America. This is a healthcare crisis. Prior to the 80s, this issue was never even mentioned in the African-American community. What has gone wrong in our communities? Many say that it's economics and others think that it may be related to an unfair penal system. Whatever, the thoughts and reasons are this is a very serious problem. The true essence of this discussion has to be around demystifying the myths surrounding mental illness in our communities. Here are just a few examples of the common misperceptions (myths) in our communities:
  • If you seek mental health you are weak
  • If I go to church and build my faith I will get through this one
  • People with mental illnesses are dangerous
  • Music Therapy (the Blues) is therapeutic
  • There are no Black psychiatrists available
First, we have got to let our family and friends know that seeking treatment for mental illness is not a sign of weakness. We need to help our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunt, cousins and uncles learn that depression is just like hypertension, a treatable disease. We must also let them know that failure to get care can lead to the tragedy of suicide in some instances. Many African-Americans have a strong faith-belief system. However, many Pastors are unable to recognize when actual professional help is needed. Somehow, we have got to develop strategies to plan, more workshops and seminars to help our clergy handle this new problem that has dawned their doorsteps. I must say that a lot of people fear the mentally ill. When we go into the archives of African-American history, we simply remember that uncle that lived in the attic that never came down to eat with the rest of the family. We also recall when John was sent down south and never came back. These images have been planted in most of our minds. You would be surprised to know that the lady sitting next to you in church has a mental illness. Your local grocer is being treated for depression and that favorite professor you had in college also fights mental illness. You just never knew their stories. Music is a staple in our communities and there are many variations on the themes. However, some music actually magnifies the signs and symptoms of depression. Be careful with both the Blues and Gospel. I am reminded of a song that starts, "I almost let go, I felt like just couldn't take life anymore" this could certainly send one further into a depressive state if their personal resilience is not available. We have to be careful with what we feed our souls through music when we are fighting depression and other mental illnesses. Finally, there is some truth to the last myth, but there are some African-American providers available. You should try the Black Psychiatrist of America's website or the Society of African-American Psychologists' just to name a few. You should query your insurance company and ask specifically for an African-American provider or a provider with cross-cultural competencies. With the world moving at warp speed around us, the economy and ecosystems failing and flailing, it is of prime importance that we take a step back and evaluate ourselves. Our health, both mental and physical is our most important asset. It will give us strength to create new opportunities, build better bridges for the future and ensure that our community flourishes. The problem is real. The call to action is necessary. Take the first step towards a healthy mind today. Certainly this discussion could go on for a while, but I just wanted to share with you some basic information to dispel some of the myths that maybe keeping you or your loved ones out of care. There are a lot of excellent treatments strategies available for those seeking help. Enough said, Dr.O Physician, author and life coach Dr. Dwight A. Owens is a practicing psychiatrist based in Atlanta. His recently launched blog, AskDrO.com offers a fresh look at mental health and relationships with both a clinically based position and a pop culture feel.
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