At 10 years old, I attempted suicide but didn’t want to die. I just wanted the intense sadness and unbearable pain to stop. I was frustrated because it made no sense. I couldn’t figure out why I felt this way when everything in my life was good. I’d been self-harming to relieve this all-encompassing mental pressure, and my behavioral issues had escalated. The self-destructive behavior was the only time I felt a sense of control during a time shrouded by internal chaos.
I didn’t understand why my frustration often led to anger, where I lashed out in rage-filled violent episodes at home against my family and at school against students and teachers. Because of my angry outbursts, I was expelled from school three times and admitted to a mental hospital three times during my childhood. The adults around me referred to me as “troubled,” “bad,” and “crazy,” and while I didn’t want to be, I believed the rhetoric.
At one point, I remember no longer being in control of myself. It all felt unbearable as I continued to get punished, and new tactics were used to force me to behave. The huge rollercoaster of fluctuating feelings locked me in for an indefinite time. I was sick and wanted to get off. I was convinced it’d be better for everyone, especially my family, if I were no longer an issue. I thought it would be best if I went to sleep and never woke up.
On Sept. 29, 1989, I emptied an orange medicine tumbler, swallowing about 20 or more pills. I lied in my mother’s bed and peacefully faded away. I was awakened by my mother’s hysterical screams and fell in and out of consciousness as she rushed me to the emergency room, where doctors violently pumped my stomach. Afterward, I spent some time in the hospital healing. I masked my truth by telling the doctors I’d accidentally ingested the pills. I’d been hospitalized in a mental ward for three weeks before the attempt, and I didn’t want to go back.
People often think something “bad” had to happen to me, that some trauma led to my mental breakdown at such a young age, but there wasn’t a catalyst event. It truly made no sense. Life was good as far as I knew. I came from a middle-class family, and my parents went the extra mile to care for my brother and me. They did so much to assist me in getting professional help. That is what was going on during my childhood.
This is what I now know as an adult. I didn’t have a tragic childhood, but my mother didn’t have excellent social skills, so she didn’t try to understand me or my issues. She just wanted to make me behave. I felt incredibly alone in a big, complex mental health struggle that was confusing to me as a child and even today leaves me perplexed at times.
My mental health challenges and multiple hospitalizations were my family’s secret, and I continued to deal with this pain in silence into my early adulthood. There’s a public health crisis happening on our watch, as Black men and boys continue to suffer with undiagnosed and untreated mental health crises alone and learn to mask the pain until it overtakes them.
Completed suicide is one of the largest killers of adolescent Black males, with rates continuing to climb. Black men have higher rates of social risk factors related to depression and suicide, including unemployment, poverty, poor educational opportunities, lack of health care, medical disease, and systematic oppression, making them more likely to be suicidal.
Sidney Hankerson, MD, MBA, associate professor and vice chair for community engagement in the department of psychiatry, and director of mental health equity research at the Institute for Health Equity Research (IHER) in the department of population health Science and policy at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai says that Black Americans face unique stressors that are often due to the impact of structural racism. These things can negatively impact our mental health. Examples of these stressors include economic inequities, mass incarceration, and limited access to culturally sensitive health care.
But mental health issues can impact Black boys and men from any socioeconomic background. The recent news of the death of Stephen Boss, affectionately known as “tWitch,” the executive producer, DJ and dancer from the Ellen Degeneres Show, shocked many across the country. His death quickly highlighted the issue of Black male suicide. Denial and confusion became the reaction of those who saw only the mask he learned to wear in public.
We must get past the “he looked like he was happy” mindset. Anyone, including Black men, can put on the act of being happy, but you don’t know what’s going on privately. We all project images of something to the world. At times, Black men feel we can better fit into society when viewed as charismatic, cheerful, intelligent, humorous, and mentally and physically strong. The reality is we can all be great actors. We all tell ourselves stories; sometimes those stories are healthy, and often they aren’t. The story that’s not healthy is that we must wear masks because mental health disorder makes us weak. I’m here to tell Black boys and men that isn’t true.
Anytime I hear about a suicide, it hits me hard. There’s sadness for what the person was going through and that their life had to end that way. It is preventable, and it’s time for us all to act. tWitch, sadly, will not be the last Black man to die by suicide.
Black leaders, preachers, parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, close friends – all of us, it’s time to take a long look at the Black boys and men in our lives and keep that supportive hand on their shoulder when it comes to their mental health. It’s time to share our mental health stories and provide support and solidarity for Black boys and men in their mental health journey.
When I think about specific actions we can take, one of the keys is to get into the habit of sharing selfless stories. Share those stories that show you in a not-so-positive light. These stories show your ugly side, pain, shame, embarrassment, and self-proclaimed weaknesses when it comes to your mental health journey. Sharing my story has made me a stronger person and leader. Many people open up to me about their struggles, and there’s an interchange of support and immediate breaking of stigma in those conversations. I challenge you to share your mental health stories, create dialogue, and contribute to making a change.
It’s also time to get educated. People often display clear signs and subtle symptoms of mental health concerns, but you must know what those signs are and take immediate action. Do your homework to be in the know, like a stroke or heart attack. Education can be the helping hand someone needs at their darkest hour.
And it’s important for those in positions of influence to help, including faith-based leaders. Due to the influence of churches in Black communities, people often believe mental health disorders can be prayed away and lean heavily on their faith during a mental health crisis. While prayer and faith can relieve stress and anxiety, mental health is not a spiritual problem. Hankerson encourages leaders in these spaces to get involved in Black mental health education and prevention. Instead of seeking formal mental health treatment, Black Americans “have often leveraged community strengths like extended family connections, faith-based organizations, and sororities and fraternities,” he says.
Transforming the stigma includes having conversations about what’s going on. As a community, we must evolve by thinking deeply about the messages we share in our families and communities and give appropriate language to these struggles.
In addition to that, it’s time to redefine what it means to be a healthy, whole, strong Black man. It’s time to rewrite the definition to include mental wellness and instill that depression cannot defeat or cripple a strong Black man. I stand with healthcare professionals like Hankerson, who believe that transforming the stigma around mental health care, getting people screened for depression, and increasing access to quality, culturally appropriate mental health care is critical to curbing the rise of depression and suicide sweeping through the country. I am personally invested in this work every day.
As a young Black boy, I struggled with debilitating mental health challenges. I later learned the cocktail of shifting feelings and moods I felt daily had names: Oppositional defiant disorder, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. I wasn’t in touch with my feelings as a child. I was the feeling. It was constant emotional dysregulation, and my emotions were felt intensely. I was self-harming, and it all snowballed into my first suicide attempt. It wouldn’t be the last time I would contemplate taking my life.
In my early adulthood, I felt ashamed because of my mental health challenges and just wanted them to go away. I became suicidal once again before I decided to get professional help, commit to therapy for the rest of my life, and realize my mental health challenges weren’t a liability but an asset that has helped me become stronger, and a changemaker in the world.
What I had struggled with in solitude for so long, fearing embarrassment, shame, guilt, and being perceived as crazy or weak, has become my superhero power. We must help other young men see their power, too.
The Black community must work together to save the lives of Black men and boys suffering in silence. It is a life-or-death issue.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They’re available to listen 24/7.
Mike Veny is a suicide survivor and Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist® committed to supporting others in receiving the gift of emotional wellness through unique learning experiences designed to empower your personal and professional growth.