12 MONTROSE VOICE / DECEMBER 20, 1985
For Black Males, Suicide Rates Peak at Prime of Life
By Louis Freedberg
Pacific News Service
Special to the Montrose Voice
Soaring suicide rates provide graphic
measure of the growing despair among
young black men on the margins of American society.
In general, blacks commit suicide far
less than whites. But in the 20-34 age
group for black males, suicide rates have
risen dramatically in the past two decades
and are now approaching the suicide rates
of white males.
Of lesser concern are suicides among
black females, where, like white females,
rates remain much lower than among
Figures from the National Center on
Health Statistics show suicide rates for 20
to 24-year-old black males increasing from
5.8 to 16.7 percent per 100,000 between
1960 and 1983, reaching 19.1% per 100,000
among 25 to 34-year-olds by the end of that
period. For white males aged 20-24, suicide
rates went from 11.9 to 25.5 per 100,000
during the same period.
Some psychologists say the increase
among black males has come as blacks
move closer to mainstream white society,
but experience disappointment and despair at continuing discrimination in the
labor and housing markets, and in other
areas of social life.
This view is reinforced when one looks
at the difference in peak suicide ages
between white and black males. Despite
the current focus on white teenage suicide
rates, whites are actually much more likey
to kill themselves when they are 65 and
over—the point at which they experience
the loss of a job or the death of a spouse,
and question whether or not they still
have a productive role to play in society.
For blacks, however, peak suicide rates
are reached during young adulthood, as
they march full-tilt into the realities of surviving in white society. Thereafter the
rates decline dramatically.
What this age differential implies, says
Dr. Herb Schreier, chief of psychiatry at
Children's Hospital in Oakland, Calif., is
that "Whites can postpone their disillusionment until a later age, whereas blacks
discover in their twenties that it's not
there for them." Hopelessness, he adds, is
the single predictor of suicide.
Mental health workers argue that suicide rates among young black males (15-24
years of age) would be even higher if other
causes of death—such as automobile accidents, drug overdoses, victim-precipitated
homicides, and other violent accidents—
were more accurately diagnosed or
reported as accurately as among whites.
Among young blacks, for example, the
homicide rate is five times the rate for
young white males. Many psychologists
assert that suicde is simply the flip side of
homicide: killing turned inwards instead
Says Dr. Craig Adams of the East Oakland Mental Health Center, "So many of
these kids get into situations that involve
gun play, so it would be easy to put themselves in a situation where they will get
Among young blacks, Adams says,
there is a well-defined fatalism, a widespread belief that because the future holds
little promise, they may as well extract as
much from life while they can. "If you plan
to be dead by the time you're 30, then you
may as well live life to the fullest."
Asserts Dr. Bill Smith, a psychologist at
the West Oakland Mental Health Center
which serves primarily black clients,
"Self-destrictive behavior is the most pervasive issue in the black community. In a
minority of cases, it is expressed in suicidal behavior."
Mental health workers speculate that
traditional buffers against the effects of
poverty and exclusion from the
mainstream—like the extended family
and the church—have eroded, leaving
blacks more susceptible to suicide.
Ironically, as blacks move closer to
what could be regarded as a white lifestyle, many built-in protections within
black culture are further weakened.
"When you move from the protection of
the black community, it shoots up your
level of frustration," says Dr. Melanie
Sweeney-Griffith, director of the East
Oakland Mental Health Center.
But by far the most important factor in
precipitating suicide among young
blacks, these professionals believe, is rising expectations that can't be met.
Sweeney-Griffith finds, for instance,
that many blacks experience a sense of
"false assimilation"—the belief that
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says, there is a
well-defined fatalism, a widespread
because the future
holds little promise, they may as
well extract as
much from life
while they can.
things will get better—only to encounter
such traditional obstacles as housing and
job discrimination. "It's almost like a double whammy," she says. "In addition to
the assimilationist stresses, there are still
the basic racial and demographic factors
that contribute to an increase in suicide."
In fact, those very forces that held out
hope for minorities in the 1960b, while
opening doors for some, may have added
to the total level of stress for young blacks
trying to enter the job market. "All those
programs gave young people some hope
that there could be a better life, that we
could get educated and could get good
jobs," says Dr. Jewelle Gibbs of the School
of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. She contends that only
those blacks already in the middle class
benefitted significantly. Left behind were
the "working poor" and the "poor poor."
"Along with a gap between hope and
aspirations, you have a group of angry,
very depressed young people," says Gibbs.
' This development coincided with a surge
of baby boomers entering the labor
market. The net result, she says, has been
"fewer opportunities at the top for all teenagers."
What gives cause for hope is that, in
spite of increases, black suicide rates are
still below those of whites.
"Historically, blacks have been copers,"
asserts Dr. Diane Howell, a psychologist.
"Blacks have developed the ability to cope
with a great deal of adversity. And that
strength has been passed down from generation to generation."
In addition, institutions that have
helped to keep suicide rates down, like the
extended family and the church, are still
powerful forces in the black community, in
spite of setbacks. Black ministers report a
recent upsurge in young black participation their churches. And mental health
workers say black families still rely on
extended family members, even when
they live in different parts of the country,
to a much greater degree than whites.
"There'B an incredible amount of pressure released with the use of the extended
family, even when family members are
separated by miles and miles," says psychiatrist Schreier. "Sometimes even that
doesn't work. Sometimes it works dramatically well."
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