By George Kevin Jordan, Special to the AFRO

Just a couple weeks shy of National Mental Health Month, a young Black boy took his life due to bullying. Nigel Shelby’s story may have taken some people by surprise, but he was not the only tragedy a family, community or society suffered.

In the District the city was rocked by two apparent suicides of Black youth. Rylan Thai Hagan, 11, in May of 2018 and Stromiyah Deson-Jackson, 12, in January of 2018.

In May 2018, a Jama Pediatrics Journal study, found that Black children ages 5 to 12 had a higher incidence of suicide than White children. This study was written after looking at 1,661 suicides death among Black youth and 13,341 suicide death among White youth between 2001 and 2015. (It should also be noted that, according to the study, Black youth have a lower suicide rate than White youth between the ages of 13-17.)

Nigel Shelby, a 15-year-old teen who committed suicide after being bullied for being gay, was one of the many tragic stories that prompted major efforts towards finding solutions to address Black youth’s mental health challenges. (Courtesy Photo)

The AFRO spoke to Jan Desper Peters, executive director of the Black Mental Health Alliance for Education & Consultation (BMHA), about her organization and how it works to combat systemic issues facing mental health.

BMHA has been around for over three decades with a main mission of providing a trusted forum for “culturally competent training education and consultation around a whole breadth and depth of mental health issues and topics as they affect Black people and marginalized communities.”

Peters spoke the hard truth about Black children and mental health. “For far too long, children of today and even yesteryear have experienced too much trauma and direct encounters with violence.” 

Knowing that, Peters said her organization culled top thought leaders to help move the needle to address these issues.

Over the years, the Baltimore based, but regionally, nationally and internationally engaged organization, has initiated a number of platforms and activations to address mental health issues in our community including, #BlackMindsMatter, an awareness campaign on the importance of addressing mental health and mental illness and incorporating the same in the healing model for our community.

BMHA also launched a 12-point plan including a year-long series that convened forums hosting national and local thought leaders on 10 of the most pressing issues in the Baltimore community.

Recently BMHA launched a community engagement series entitled “Trilogy of Trauma: Valuing, Thriving and Healing!,” through their new Training Center to form discussions around the topic, and to promote optimal mental health and wellness.

In addition, Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative (FSFSC) and the Black Mental Health Alliance will work together on a Trauma Recovery Center (TRC) in Ward 8.  This model will supplement existing efforts in the District to serve victims of crime and their families. The community based model brings together agencies, organizations and neighborhood activists in a holistic design to provide early treatment and comprehensive care to avoid negative outcomes for victims, Peters said.

Peters said she was also invited to join the Emergency Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health led by Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to deal with the mental health crisis’ impact Black youth.

“We’re looking at children as young as five feeling their lives aren’t worth living,” Peters. “This is a national crisis.”

The CBC Taskforce will be chaired by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and will help educate members of Congress on the key issues related to mental heaths, and finding solutions and legislative recommendations.

David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, whose organization will be working with the CBC on the task force said in a press release: “In honor of Nigel Shelby, Jamel Myles, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, McKenzie Adams and so many other babies whose names we may never know, we need to act urgently to address the trauma, stress and mental health needs of children, youth and young adults, especially those from racial and sexual minority communities.”

Peters said the task force, which will start convening soon, was asked to look at possible solutions to address the problem.

“The ultimate goal would be to really provide some insight into this issue and some operational procedures so people who touch the lives of children can influence and hopefully change the direction as it relates to children seeing suicide as the answer,” Peters said.

“It’s a broad range of really trying to help adults understand that it is the adults’ responsibility, it’s the village’s responsibility, to look at this issue and determine how they can collectively help out children understand that they are loved, appreciated and valued.”

For more information about the BMHA please go to their website at: http://blackmentalhealth.com/