Black People Don’t Kill Themselves: 4 Common Mental Health Misperceptions

Older African American man looking thoughtful sad“Black people don’t commit suicide.”  My client’s grandmother spat the words out angrily while staring at me in disbelief. In an attempt to abruptly end the conversation, she grabbed her purse as if I was wasting her time and shifted toward the door. Earlier that day, her teenage granddaughter came to my counseling office in the school and opened up to me about having ongoing thoughts of dying and killing herself. I saw this student almost daily, she laughed and smiled often, but clearly behind the smiles was pain. As part of my professional obligation, I encouraged my client to allow me to notify a parent or guardian so we called her grandmother.

Well, I can only imagine how my client felt when her grandmother completely invalidated her feelings.  Ashamed, embarrassed and maybe even a little guilty my client hung her head as her grandmother continued to rant on about how Black women are strong and don’t kill themselves. She went on to tell me how just the other day her granddaughter was playing around on the phone and there was no way her grandchild was depressed. The grandmother was convinced that I was taking this too seriously and no one in their family needed counseling.

Unfortunately in my time as a counselor in school and community settings I encountered many situations where opinion and false information was valued over the recommendation of a trustworthy professional. Here are 4 common misperceptions about mental health that are barriers to people seeking treatment.

1. Black people don’t “commit” suicide.  We can look at recent events in the news and see young Black men and women ARE dying by suicide. On a positive note statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention indicate that African-Americans continue to have one of the lowest rates of death by suicide. However these rates do not include suicide attempts, many of which often go unreported. In addition, having suicidal thoughts is often a sign of Major Depressive Disorder, even if the person does not attempt suicide the thoughts should be taken seriously and addressed by a professional.