THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Shattering the myth on Black suicides

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Writer

One of legendary comedian and social activist Dick Gregory’s often told jokes about Blacks and suicide went like this.

“Whites, when they want to do away with themselves, jump out of a window in a tall building. Blacks, when they want to do the same, jump out of a basement window. “

Gregory’s point was that suicide was an alien concept to Blacks. Despite all the economic, political, social and personal traumas that Blacks daily suffer due to racism and social and economic injustice and their perennial outcast status in American society, they don’t take their own lives.

Gregory always got laughter and knowing acknowledgement among many Blacks of the alleged truth of this joking observation about suicide. The dual message was that suicide was a “white thing” and that Blacks had developed a tougher, inner shell than whites to ward off the demons that drive a person to take their own life.

Gregory’s joke perpetuated a myth when he popularized it in the 1960s. It’s even more of a myth today. The suicide of Stephen Boss, popularly known as tWitch, drove that point home with a horrid vengeance.

The popular dancer-entertainer at first glance seemed to fit all the characteristics that would make one think he would be the last person to take his own life.

He was young, talented, had gotten many accolades in the entertainment world, had a stable marriage and family life, was financially comfortable and seemed politically and socially well-grounded. So, what would possess him to check into a motel, leave a note telling of challenges, and then proceed to put a gun to his head and take his life?

The speculation about why is endless. But who can really say why for certain? Who can say why more particularly young African American males such as Boss are driven to the extreme step of taking their own lives?

We know that many more of them take that extreme step than is commonly thought. The statistics on Black suicides tell the grim story.

According to a 2021 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, Black males reportedly had a nearly 80% increase in suicide attempts, the highest of any race in the study. There’s more.

Black deaths where there is no listed specific cause of death is much more likely than that of whites to be lumped into the category of “undetermined.” Even more disconcerting is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report on suicides in 2021. It noted a jump in Black suicides, but some experts charged that even this increase badly undercounted the actual increase.

In the wake of the suicide of tWitch a litany of reasons were offered as to why Blacks kill themselves. The most common reasons cited are that Blacks, particularly younger Black males, are driven to despair by the endless procession of racist abuse, violence, stress, the intense racial discrimination slights, insults, and exclusion they suffer. They are less likely to seek or even have access to mental health care, counseling and treatment for the myriad mental and physical challenges and stresses they are bombarded with.

This underscores the point why Black suicides often fly under the medical and public radar scope. One study found that the language most often associated with suicide; namely intense depression and anxiety were routinely cited as causal reasons for whites who kill themselves but not for Blacks.

Therefore, there’s the self-perpetuating impression that depression, anxiety and other traumas that Blacks suffer are minimal to non-existent.

At the very least when the glaring signs are apparent that those traumas are there, they are more likely to be missed or ignored. This is a sure-fire prescription that an individual who desperately needs intervention will plummet through the mental health care cracks. That individual then becomes a prime candidate to take his or her own life from the sense of alienation, hopelessness and despondency.

Researchers also found that the narratives on real or suspected Black suicides were far more likely to use words and phrases such as “questionable,” “nothing” and “no further details.” This further minimized both the impact and the numbers of Black suicides.

In trying to understand why Blacks such as tWitch commit suicide, a suicide note is the prime evidence sought and scrutinized. However, again there’s a disparity between whites and Blacks who commit suicide.

Whites are more likely to leave a note than Blacks. tWitch was an exception. He did leave a note.

There’s also less likelihood that medical researchers who examine a possible suicide will do extensive interviews with family members or closely scrutinize prior medical records of a Black suicide victim to determine if it was a suicide and why.

The intense public and media focus on tWitch’s suicide renewed the challenge to medical professionals and public agencies to be on the alert for the signs among Blacks of suicide risk and then devote more resources to the access and promotion of suicide prevention task forces, hotlines and treatment centers.

This may or may not have saved tWitch. But it could well save another potential tWitch.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “I’m Darned Tired of Slave Movies” (Middle Passage Press). He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show at 9 a.m. Saturday on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.