Just Beneath the Surface

Young Black Men Overwhelmed, Turning to Suicide in Record Numbers

By Alfonzo Porter

The suicide rate for African American males in Colorado has doubled since 2013 and this alarming trend shows no signs of getting better.

While many might be compelled to blame the isolation, loneliness and gloom brought on by having to shelter for most of the past two years, this phenomenon is not new.

A recent Denver Post article reported that Black male suicides in the Centennial state stood at 10.2 per 100,000 in 2013. Today, that number stands at 20.2 per 100,000.

The anxieties, lurking just beneath the surface of what appears to be stability, manifests as self-harm, violence, trauma, substance abuse and a nihilistic mindset – those feelings of helplessness, and hopelessness. Black men are not impervious to these emotions even though they are often told to “man up” by those around them.

Add to this, the relentless mass media portrayals of Black men as violent thugs, criminals, drug dealing gangsters, countermands and obscures their role as an integral part of the Black family and societal dynamic. This, according to experts, tends to heighten the sense of abandonment and chronic stress.

According to Dr. Anthony Young, president of the Denver-Rocky Mountain Association of Black Psychologists, Black males have been traditionally and historically brutalized both physically and mentally.

“As we have seen in cases like Ahmaud Arbery, Black men have essentially been hunted not unlike big game out on a safari. There is an ever-present target on their backs and what is now observable are the results of being victimized by government sponsored terrorism since we were captured and enslaved,” he insisted. “The symptoms we see today, in many of our young Black men, has been a consequence of the ruthless treatment of the Black male.”

Young, also former chair of the Colorado State Board of Parole says the pressures felt by Black men, hit Black boys and teens quite differently.

“An adult male has options to fellowship with friends and acquaintances,” he said. “For example, the pick-up basketball game, the drinks at the sports bar watching the fight, ability to be mobile, the pool hall, the night club etc. serve as de-stressors for adults. For boys and teens, they are basically hostages to their circumstances often with few if any choices.”

One solution, according to Young, is that churches step into the role of community recreation or youth centers.

“The one thing the Black community has plenty of is churches. Many of them are empty four to five days a week. Many of the larger ones are equipped right now to host youth events and programs. This is our fight, our problem, and our work. We should stop waiting on permission to act on behalf of our community,” Young says. “We should be availing every resource at our disposal to engage our young people – and we do have resources to pull from.”

The National Suicide Prevention Resource Center, a network of crisis centers around the country, reports that suicides among African Americans rise through adolescence but tends to decline significantly moving into adulthood. Services for young Black males, the center suggested, have skyrocketed in the past few years.

Given the pandemic has forced students to be home in perhaps a non-supportive, abusive environment, a general lack of trust in the mental health system, the danger in calling the police for help in a crisis, and the stigma of being weak, many young Black males begin to feel, “what hope is there?”

For mental health professional, Dr. Marjorie Lewis, there appears to be a breakdown in the ability to be resilient.

“Only recently have the doors been even opened for young Black men to address their sense of vulnerability” she said. “Yet too many continue to diminish it or even deny that it exists. African American men have been brutalized since the inception of this nation and have been required to function in a perpetual state of chronic anxiety. Coincidentally, many may not even know the difference between depression and a normal state of being.” 

Therefore, the need for mental health and wellness programs could not be more urgent.

“The Black community has and continues to deal with issues white supremacy, micro-aggressions, macro-aggressions and the underlying fear that whatever they do, it will make little difference,” Lewis said.

Lewis, who serves as senior consultant for the Academy for Behavioral health holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy Analysis along with a doctorate in Ministry, suggests that teaching better coping techniques will go a long way in solving the crisis.

“As odd as it may sound, most African Americans really have issues trusting a peaceful state of mind as a result of our trauma filled past,” she said. “As such anxiety, stress and depression are a regular part of our existence. Possessing a skill set that helps to acknowledge feelings, something that men don’t do as well as women, is a must. For instance, feeling a great deal of anger and not knowing how to express it appropriately.

Health officials further insist that every case is as different as the person and include indicators such as self-medication, substance abuse, trauma, dysfunctional family relationships, isolation, mental distress, access to guns and disinclined to seek mental health treatment.

Lewis advises that family and friends look for key signs of trouble.

“It’s difficult because each case is unique. People can be highly functioning and appear healthy both physically and psychologically; and still commit suicide of have suicide ideation,” she says. “You can look for sudden changes in attitude and behaviors.”

Particular attention needs to be focused on the current rising generation, however – those born between 1995-2010, the so-called Gen Z has been touted as the most depressed generation. Only about 45%, in an American Psychological Association study, revealed that their mental health was very good or excellent. This is compared to 56% of Millennials; 51% percent of Gen X’ers; and 70% of Boomers (born between 1946-1963).

While members of Gen Z report a lower rate of depression, they are far more likely to seek mental health services; perhaps a good sign for young Black males moving forward. Nearly 40% of this group will seek help when struggling emotionally, more than any other generational group.

Gen Z, the group to which many of our young Black males belong face a reality of potential school or university shootings, high student debt, uncertainty about long term stability advancing technologies that promise to replace humans with Artificial Intelligence.

The internet and social media, the lifeblood of this generation, only serves to intensify the feelings of loneliness and isolation. Add to this the fear of missing out (FOMO), a constant stream of nothing but negative news and low performance on social media. For instance, only a few people like your new photo or fail to respond positively can send a young person on an emotional downturn for days.

Our young men encounter in stability, insecurity, lack of food and other resources.

For Gen­er­a­tion Z, the pan­dem­ic has completely changed their edu­ca­tion­al and social expe­ri­ences. It shift­ed learn­ing online, desta­bi­lized economies, robbed young peo­ple of a par­ent or loved one. And prompt­ed some old­er sib­lings to jug­gle new roles as teach­ers and care­givers for their families.

Schools serve as a safe­ty net for many young peo­ple and fam­i­lies. They offer virtually everything from engag­ing learn­ing envi­ron­ments, con­sis­tent meals, med­ical screen­ings and sup­port ser­vices. In some areas, schools are the only source of men­tal health ser­vices for young peo­ple.

When the pan­dem­ic hit, mil­lions of teach­ers and stu­dents across the coun­try shift­ed to remote learn­ing. This dras­tic change altered and – in some cas­es – erased the broad­er ben­e­fits that schools sup­ply. It also sep­a­rat­ed stu­dents from their famil­iar social struc­tures and networks. 

To show weakness is to lose “street credit,” it’s either live with the pain or invite someone else’s.

“That’s a thing in the Black community, especially being a man. I can’t be perceived as being soft or sensitive because, if I do, people are going to take advantage of me,” Young said.