My Sister’s Death Opened My Family’s Hearts And Minds To Conversations Around Mental Health
Mental distress experienced by Black people is often brushed under the rug due to the guilt and shame.
May 12, 2021 at 4:30 pm
Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.
When the Congressional Black Caucus’ Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide released their “Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America” report in 2019, I had mixed feelings. Thoughts of relief emerged now that more attention was being placed on an already concerning issue; however, these feelings were coupled with immense frustration and entrenched anger that it was too little too late for my sister and the friends and family who loved her.
My sister was only 16 years old when she first attempted suicide in 2008. She was pronounced dead on the scene, but was revived by first responders on the commute from her high school to the hospital. After a short hospital stay, she returned to a family that struggled to find access to equitable mental health services that would have helped her work through her emotional challenges and to the same school that had little to no resources available to her.
Unfortunately, my sister went on to attempt suicide countless more times and in 2016 she passed away in a car crash. The crash was ruled an accident, but my family and I are forever burdened with the thought that this was yet another suicide attempt.
Sadly, we aren’t the only Black family in America that has struggled with finding help and support for an issue that was once said to not be a concern in the Black community, when in fact it has always been one. Mental distress experienced by Black people is often brushed under the rug due to the guilt and shame sometimes associated with disclosing our mental health difficulties with loved ones, or the blatant dismissal when disclosing to health care providers. This family tragedy forced us to simultaneously open up about a stigmatized issue and spread awareness on the importance of mental health and therapy within our community.
Both “Ring the Alarm” and the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey found Black high school-aged youth suicide attempts rose by 73% between 1991-2017. In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens and young adults ages 10 to 24. In New York state, suicide is the 12th leading cause of death and the second leading cause of death for people 10 to 34. Knowing these statistics, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has disproportionately impacted BIPOC communities, the need to decrease self-injury incidence rates among Black youth is critical.
As critical as this issue is, it is just as important to devote more research to understanding how to better help and serve Black youth and their mental health, in addition to investing in more equitable and inclusive clinical services and programming both in- and out-of-school. I have made it my mission to devote my professional and personal life to ensuring young people have access to, and can receive, diverse and equitable health care services.
Through my work with my colleagues at The Jed Foundation (JED), I have worked with partners in New York City and beyond on the equitable implementation of mental health services via a public health approach. My team and I have worked to develop JED’s newest initiative, JED High School, an approach that is currently being piloted in schools across the country. It consists of a “meeting of the minds” with several key stakeholders at all levels (e.g., educators, administrators, caregivers, students and other school/district partners), taking a deep dive into existing school/district mental health programming, policies and procedures, and the development of a tailored strategic plan that our team helps to disseminate over the course of 18 to 24 months.
JED High School is a program that couldn’t be more timely as students continue to juggle the challenges the pandemic has thrown their way. One of the seven domains of our approach is social connectedness, a public health determinant that is known to be a protective factor for the mental health of people and particularly developing youth, but is also something that is clearly lacking due to the circumstances by which the pandemic has left us all.
The need for youth to be socially connected to their school communities is paramount. I cannot begin to recall all of the times my sister would come home from school feeling that no one “got her” or that she was an outcast, even within the communities she was born into. She was a beautifully dynamic person that didn’t quite fit into the boxes that her educators felt she belonged, and was too much of an outlier to sit at certain tables in the cafeteria. Take a moment to imagine how many students fall through the cracks because they don’t feel connected to the one community in which they spend most of their time. Perhaps you were that student?
As the years go by, the loss of my sister doesn’t get easier but more manageable. My family and I rally behind each other to help one another cope. We have opened up our hearts and minds to conversations around mental health and therapy because we know it can be life-changing. Through my work at JED and the public health sector, I continue to tell the story of my sister and other youth that have lost their lives to suicide. I am proud to make this part of my life’s mission and purpose.
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