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New research links black suicides and religious community

August 28, 2007 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( Black suicide can be lessened through the influence of religious communities, according to new UA research.

The study done by UA sociology professor Kevin Fitzpatrick intended “to focus the question on whether or not religion was important, particularly in a community where religion has been, and often still is, playing a central and unifying raole across generations.”

“Historically, we know that the church has been an incredibly important institution around which the Black community has unified,” Fitzpatrick said.

For examples of this, history professor Calvin White points to the leaders who emerge out of the Black community such as Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

“It’s no coincidence,” White said, “that these men are all ministers and the position of the church as a leader, although perhaps declining slightly, is still huge among Blacks.”

White, whose research deals specifically with Blacks and religion, said it is the “unique struggle of Blacks in this country” which has made religion so powerful a factor.

Facing hardships and overcoming obstacles was central to day-to-day existence of Blacks and, in many cases, still is, White said.

“You may be barefoot on Earth, but you’ve got shoes waiting in heaven,” and suicide is a denial of the struggles essential to the Black identity, White said.

Mary Margaret Hui, a UA senior minoring in Black studies, said she believes “the church community is tight among African-Americans because the church offered a new family of welcoming, supportive people with the similar life struggles,” and because faith “gives Blacks a place to belong.”

Hui notes that the long history of discrimination and hardship gave the church a position of prominence in the Black community.

“Blacks are so strongly religious as a whole because of their ties to slavery. Most often, when people are oppressed and mistreated, they turn to faith to escape the physical reality and enter into a euphoria all their own,” Hui said.

The study found that regular church attendance, school and family, while important, are not the factors that keep Black youth from committing suicide, according to the study.

“The family is of course a critical element in mediating or moderating the negative life experiences that all youth are exposed to,” Fitzpatrick said. “Nevertheless, in our study, using very specific kinds of protective, we found that the family had limited impact on whether or not youth had thought about or attempted suicide. The same was true of school,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Keep in mind that these measures of protection while very general ones and used often in the literature, may not be as culturally sensitive as they need to be in assessing family and school protection among racial and ethnic minorities,” Fitzpatrick said.

Although Black women are the least likely to complete a suicide attempt than any other major minority group, according to the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide’s Web site, the suicide rate for Blacks ages 15-19 more than doubled to 8 suicides per 100,000 from 1980-1995.

Black women are less likely to attempt suicide because “of protective factors that work to safeguard them, such as an inner sense of music that is typified by gospel and blues, the natural toughening process African-American women are forced to endure, the development and maintenance of support networks and the belief that suicide is a ‘white thing,'” as stated on the Web site.

Using his research and the findings of others should help policy makers, educators, and religious leaders formulate plans to keep Blacks students from attempting suicide or harboring suicidal thoughts, although Fitzpatrick said little research has been done on the mental health of Black Americans.

“The challenge, I think, is finding what protective mechanisms truly work and then making every effort to reinforce and support them in any way that we can so that families, schools, churches and communities as a whole recognize the problem and work in common for a solution,” Fitzpatrick said.

By J. Claire Wilson

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