black children are dying: we need to talk about suicide and depression

January 10, 2018
1.1K Picks
By Gioncarlo Valentine* / RaceBaitR, AFROPUNK contributor

Where do you go when the pain of staying is stronger than that of leaving?”- Joel Leon

I recently happened across a story that shook me into a state of genuine despair. A woman named Marisa Harris, who was working to dedicate her life to helping troubled youth, who attended my former university in Maryland, who had only just begun to live, died at 22 years old after a 12 year old boy hurled his body from an overpass and landed on her car. The many ironies of this horrifying ordeal—the heartbreak, the confusion—collected and knocked the breath from my body.

I somehow managed to ask the question, why would a 12-year-old want to kill themselves? As if I couldn’t relate. When the question crawled from me, in all its spit and dis-ingenuity, I fell limp with understanding. But the weight of the reality that other children wanted to kill themselves too, that they knew this language, that this was a part of their lived, childhood experiences, shattered me. I thought, no one deserves to feel the things that I have felt.

I’ve thought about suicide every single day for the past 15 years.

When I think of the days—5,501 to be exact—it’s difficult to catch my breath. I cup my hand to my mouth and feel the quiet cold of shame. It’s hard to say this out loud. It’s hard to write these words. To submit them. To share them.

Depression is real. It has lined the interior of my life for as long as I can remember. This is what happens to Black people far too frequently. We hand our depression, our sadness and our trauma to our children, our cousins, our lovers—unresolved and unspoken. So often it is all we have. It is the generational wealth we were otherwise denied, and it erodes us, angers us, and endangers us.

For me, suicide is not always a serious thought. Most of the time it’s a passing, “Hmm, I haven’t killed myself yet.” Other times I don’t know if I want to board the train or hurl this body in front of it.

Even as I write this I want to stop. It’s too dark. I feel too exposed. I feel like people are judging me anytime I tell them that I experience this symptom of depression. I feel my friends lurching away from me when I tell them that I’m spiraling, when they see me this way, when they get a full and honest look at these broken things. I feel them pull away. I pull away too.

For the last 15 years, I have believed that I was introduced to depression and suicide when I was 12 years old, and Kirby, a 12 year old boy whom I loved greatly, hanged himself in the basement of his home.

Kirby was tall, lean, brown and sharp. He was the type of golden boy that white men played in the movies. Kirby was the most popular boy that I knew at Calverton middle school, and somehow his kindness extended to me. He was my protector from the torment I faced for being too gay, too femme, growing up in Baltimore City.

No one dared back talk him, and if I was alright with him, I was alright with everyone. But somewhere, something wasn’t right. In his mind, in his heart or in his spirit, something was eroding him too.

I have no idea what was hurting Kirby—what was eating away at his spirit. He was a masterful hider of things or I was oblivious to his cries. Maybe our whole friendship was an attempt to be saved. Maybe he saw the darkness on me too. I can only fashion these stories from the emptiness, because when Kirby hanged himself he didn’t leave a note.

I imagined that Kirby’s mother came home around 5:30pm that Wednesday, walked down to the dank basement, calling loudly for her son, her Golden boy. I imagined when she walked toward the back she heard the still of death, the disquiet, before she saw anything.

I envisioned that when she saw him there, lightly swaying, empty and languid, she let out a scream. A scream that far too many Black mothers can attest to. A scream that pierces and peels. One that attempts to rattle the world into a similar state of terror. A scream that in itself could raise a mother’s dead child back to life.

I imagined that Kirby used an orange extension cord. Sometimes, I imagined he used a leather Black belt, fraying on the ends.

These things that I imagined, these realities that I fashioned and obsessed over in his wake, pulled me deeper and deeper into my own sadness. I romanticized that pain. I lamented that loss.

Baltimore, 2015

When Kirby killed himself, he introduced me to a new language: suicide. It was more than the act, it was the fact that there was a word for it. People who felt trapped in their lives, who felt alone in the world, who believed that their misery was unending, they could leave this planet on their own terms. There was a power in learning this. I saw a crisp beauty along the edges. Suicide became my secret. My weapon.

I’ve always believed that Kirby was my introduction to this kind of hurt, this level of harm, but on a recent visit back to Baltimore I discovered that this wasn’t exactly the case.

My great aunt handed me a journal that I kept as a 10 year old boy. I do not remember keeping this journal. I do not remember carrying it from house to house as we moved. But when I touched it, when I saw the writing, I knew that it was mine. To my surprise and discomfort, I read how I was already experiencing deep depression and a desire to leave this world. I simply didn’t have the language.

An excerpt from my childhood journal from July 2001

The book told the tale of a young boy, isolated for being gay, tossed into instability and transience, and exhausted of feeling alone. I wrote about hatred, isolation, family and longing. This was a revision of my own history, one I was not prepared for.

I still haven’t read the journal fully—the sadness is too thick on the pages—but it prompted me to spend a bit more time understanding what Black children go through and how helpless and unsupported they can feel at the hands of their family, peers, and the public.

According to a study published by the JAMA Network describing trends in suicide among children in the U.S. younger than 12 years old, suicide rates for children between the ages of 5-11 remained stable between 1993-1997. However, for Black children, the rates of suicide increased significantly, while falling sharply in white children. The study also found that suicide by hanging roughly tripled among Black boys, yet remained the same for white boys.

Recently, I read a story about a 10 year old Black girl named Ashawnty Davis. This beautiful little girl, who had barely even started to live, hanged herself in her closet in an act of “Bullycide” after a video of a fight, her very first, was floated around her school. A few months ago, an 8 year old Black boy named Gabrielle Taye hanged himself with a necktie after being bullied in school as well. 8 years old. Rosalie Avila, a 13 year old Latina girl from California, hanged herself after she too was bullied in her school. She scribbled goodbye notes to her parents because she believed that she understood what her death would do to them, what a loss like that would cost.

When I read through these stories I felt an ancient heartbreak—a recognizable disquiet. I felt Kirby’s death all over again. These cases received a small amount of news coverage and then faded from the headlines, as our stories tend to do, with no calls for overhauls or systemic changes.

I felt like somehow I had failed these kids.

Harlem, 2017

We need to start talking about depression, suicide, and children. We need to demystify suicide in the Black community.

Jesus simply will not save us, prayer is truly not enough. We need to understand that these are the interior stories of far more of our children than we have the courage to imagine. We need to reevaluate the way we yell at our younger siblings when they irritate us, searching for attention and affection. We need to reconsider the ways we beat our children when trying to save and protect them from the world.

We need to challenge ourselves not to tell our kids to stop crying, but instead teach them how to unpack what they’re feeling. We need to pay attention to the signs and the intricacies of what the children in our lives are going through, prioritizing it in a way that is nothing short of intentional.

We need to talk about depression in OUR community, mental health in OUR families, suicide in OUR thought processes and coping mechanisms. We need to educate ourselves on how to love each other better and more inclusively.

Parents with differing beliefs than their children, differing identities and expectations, need to step back and seek help on how to love and encourage their children in the proper ways. Needing a little help is not a weakness. Therapy is not a dirty word.

We need to hold each other accountable in ways that empower and illustrate to our young people that the world can be cruel, that fighting through these traumas can be grueling, especially for Black people, but you can surmount these things. More importantly, you are not alone in your struggles to topple them.

And for the parents who already do all of this—for the exceptional, twice as good, those with support systems who loved their children, brothers, nieces and cousins the right way—and the outside world still managed to convince your children that their lives would never improve, that they actually did not matter, I can’t imagine the words to comfort you. I simply do not have them. Sometimes, having the world killing us, or us killing us, feels like the cost of being Black. Sometimes I want to hurl my body too.

Suggested Reading:

10-Year-Old Girl Killed Herself After Video of Fight With Alleged Bully Was Posted Online, Family Says, Breanna Edwards (The Root)

Rise in Suicide by Black Children Surprises Researchers, Sabrina Tavernese (New York Times)

Black, young and suicidal: An epidemic we must continue to bring to light, George M Johnson (The Grio)

Why Are So Many Black Kids Dying From Suicide?, Alex Zielinski, (Think Progress)

Suicide rates in the United States increasing, Black youth hit hardest, Mo Barnes (Rolling Out)

This post is in partnership RaceBaitR.

*Gioncarlo Valentine is a writer and photographer from Baltimore, living and working in New York City. His written and photographic works have been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Fader, Philadelphia Print Works, Essence, Harper’s Bazaar, and Apogee Journal among others. Gioncarlo is a transgender rights advocate, self-care enthusiast, and has a life goal of marrying and divorcing Frank Ocean.