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We must teach kids it’s OK to seek help…

February 7, 2009 by  
Filed under Health, News, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) It would be hard on any mother, black or white, to be told that her 10-year-old son committed suicide.

But for most African-American mothers, accepting such a tragedy is nearly unthinkable.

For a long time, many African Americans have assumed that suicide rarely happens in the black community.

The “sin of suicide” was something that was drilled into my head at an early age, when my mother told me that God forgives everything but self-murder.

She said it as if it were the 11th Commandment.

So I can empathize with the disbelief and pain Angel Marshall felt when she was told her 10-year-old son, Aquan Lewis, killed himself.

My baby did not kill himself,” Lewis tearfully told reporters.

The Cook County medical examiner’s office ruled the death a suicide by hanging — another horror.

Because of the history of lynching in this country, African Americans are extremely reluctant to accept such rulings even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Given the sketchy details that have emerged about Aquan’s last hours, and where the alleged suicide occurred, I am not suggesting that his mother’s pleas be ignored.

Authorities should make every effort to alleviate her fears, including agreeing to an independent autopsy.

But I am not surprised that she is unable to accept that her “baby” killed himself.

At a news conference Thursday, Marshall described her son as “happy,” and a standout athlete who dreamed of being in the NBA. She also denied that her son had any mental illnesses, though an unidentified source has told reporters that Aquan attempted to “harm” himself in the past.

Marshall told reporters she went back to the Evanston school, looked into the stall where her son was found hanging and could not picture him being able to hang himself.

I don’t doubt that Marshall is sincere.

Yet I would be remiss if I did not point out that black male suicides have been on the rise.

In the 1980s and through the mid-1990s, the suicide rate for black adolescents doubled, according to health services specialists.

Suicide is now the third-leading cause of death among young black men.

But it wasn’t until 19-year-old Abraham Biggs of Florida overdosed on a prescription drug in front of a Webcam last year that this tragedy sparked an outcry.

Though the rate of suicide among this population is now about the same for blacks as it is for other racial groups, that is still astounding when you consider the anger that still exists in the black community whenever the word “lynching” is uttered cavalierly.

Black families must recognize that they are not immune from this tragedy.

Mental health experts advise there are behaviors that could be warning signs that a child is considering suicide as an option.

For instance, according to published reports, sources said Aquan threatened to kill himself after he was scolded by a teacher, but the teacher apparently did not take the threat seriously.

That would not have happened had Aquan threatened to kill his teacher or his classmates.

After a series of school shootings, teachers are now trained to treat these threats as more than idle rantings.

The early signs that a person might be considering suicide include: telling others, giving away prized possessions, and shutting down or isolating oneself.

There is still a stigma attached to seeking help for mental illness.

But black parents have to work a lot harder to convey the message that it’s OK to seek help when you feel overwhelmed by fear, bullying and painful incidents, including the challenges of growing up in a single-parent household.

Also, given the violence some children witness in their neighborhoods, it is clear that there is a great need for mental health services in schools.

Yet school psychologists and counselors are often the first to be cut from cash-strapped budgets.

If the stress in our lives sometimes takes a toll — sinking us into depression or worse — then what do we think is happening to our children?

They are crying out.

There’s no shame in admitting we need help to save ourselves and to save them.


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