Black People, We Need to Talk About Mental Health

We’ve moved past the days when Mariah Carey and Martin Lawrence couldn’t even discuss their problems publicly, but there’s still a long way to go


Black people, if you’re reading this, we need to talk.

We need to discuss something that often goes unmentioned in our community. Actually, there are two things we need to talk about: mental illness and suicide. I don’t know how, why, or when we began treating these two issues as taboo, verboten. But it has to stop, for a number of reasons.

Let’s start with the Washington Post article that was published earlier this year stating that, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides among black children in the U.S. under eighteen are up 71 percent in the past decade, from 86 in 2006 to 147 in 2016, while suicide among children thirteen and under rose 114 percent those ten years. (In the same period, the suicide rate among all children also went up 64 percent.)

The article also mentions how researchers are unsure what has fueled this rise, citing either racism toward high-risk black children or the black community itself for continuing to ignore suicide as a major issue. It can be both those things. When it comes to bullying, children of color often get hit — physically and verbally — the hardest. It isn’t even always white kids who are the ones slamming black kids with damaging taunts and epithets. The worst abuse can often come from your own kind, as in the flashback episode from the recent season of Atlanta, where a young kid gets ripped to shreds by other black kids for allegedly wearing a fake FUBU shirt — and that young kid ends up taking his own life.

I certainly remember how, as a kid going through middle school hell in the late Eighties, I was often picked on by my fellow black classmates for the usual stuff: looking broke, being too dark-skinned (back in my day, being called “Shaka Zulu” was a major insult), giving off a “homo” vibe. Sadly, even when we become full-grown adults, those are still things that continue to plague black people. As Huberta Jackson-Lowman, Ph.D., president of the Association of Black Psychologists, told the Atlanta Black Star last year, “The issues that black youth and children bully each other about are those issues about which we as black adults have unresolved and [conflicted] feelings and which are also viewed negatively or with great ambivalence by the larger society.”

African Americans have to embody strength even when it feels like our legs are about to give out from how much we have to carry as a culture. If you’re seen exhibiting vulnerability or emotion, you’re considered weak or — dare I say it! — gay! We don’t talk about our feelings or none of that bullshit! We’re the descendants of men and women who were taken from their land and forced into slavery. Whatever problems you got ain’t got shit on what they had to deal with! You can’t off yourself just because you’re going through some stuff — suck it up, goddammit! And, besides, suicide is a white-people thing!

And there it is. In African American culture, suicide and mental illness are regularly perceived as issues that mainly affect the Anglo-American populace. Once again, I don’t know where this came from, but it’s something that has made black people distance themselves from psychiatrists, therapists, or any other mental-health professionals. (To quote a Chris Rock line, the only way black people are going to see a therapist is if the court orders them to do it.) There are black folk who also prefer to confer with religious folk and “pray away” their mental troubles instead of getting proper treatment. Not to knock anyone’s religious beliefs, but pastors aren’t medical experts. Then again, since African Americans are often mistreated and neglected by our healthcare system, it’s easy to see why going to a person of faith would be seen as an acceptable substitute.  

It doesn’t help that famous African Americans with mental health issues rarely discuss their problems, especially after they’ve had a very public meltdown. Seventeen years ago, Mariah Carey appeared on Total Request Live, schlepping around an ice cream cart and freaking out the audience and host Carson Daly with her erratic behavior. This led to her getting checked into a mental facility a few days later, amid rumors that she had attempted suicide. It wasn’t until this year that she divulged in a People cover story that she struggles with bipolar disorder.

A few years before that, Martin Lawrence had a notorious breakdown on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, cursing and screaming at cars (with a gun in his pocket!) until he was taken away by police and hospitalized. Several years later, in his concert movie Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat, he chalked up the experience to smoking bad weed. The whole incident is reminiscent of when Richard Pryor set himself on fire in 1980 and later used the trauma as comic fodder in his concert movie Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, saying he exploded due to a potent mixture of milk and cookies. (He later fessed up in his semi-autobiographical movie Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, when the titular character, played by Pryor, pours alcohol all over himself and flicks a lighter.)

In recent years, people of color in the public eye have finally been coming clean about having mental health issues and/or contemplating suicide. Unfortunately, their pleas for sympathy can fall on a few deaf ears. When rising r&b singer Kehlani attempted suicide in 2016, after she was accused online of cheating on ex Kyrie Irving with Canadian musician PartyNextDoor, Chris Brown reminded everyone why he’s an A-1 douchebag when he went on Twitter to call her out. “There is no attempting suicide,” he tweeted. “Stop flexing for the gram.” Stay classy, you asswipe.

But more recognizable people of color, whether it’s Wentworth Miller or Jada Pinkett Smith, have admitted to having suicidal thoughts, and that is a good thing. It lets African American people know that their feelings of hopelessness aren’t so exclusive.

Ironically, with our history — and what we continue to go through as people — African Americans deserve mental-health treatment and medication the most. Whether it’s black families constantly struggling to live above the poverty line or black men just trying to live every day without getting shot and killed by the police, black people need all the help we can get.

We need to stop acting like feeling depressed or sad or helpless is something you should be embarrassed about or ashamed of — and we definitely need to make sure children know that, so they’ll never have to consider killing themselves. No child should end their life before they’ve even started it.