Suicide and the Stigma that Keeps It Going

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By Alexis Taylor, Special to the AFRO

“This can be over in minutes,” thought Estenia Goodridge. 

Yes, her mother would be distraught at losing a daughter, but in the end that tie wasn’t enough. Goodridge swallowed the pills.

Her mother had other children who could comfort and care for her. 

The date was August 18, 2019. On that date, Goodridge almost became one of the more than 800,000 people reported to commit suicide each year by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

“It was a rough period of time. I had no value of life,” the 31-year old research assistant told the AFRO. “I felt like if I wasn’t here everyone would be just fine without me. I was dealing with a lot of family issues and I really felt like I was the most hated person in the world.”

(Stock Photo)

“After I survived the attempt, I finally decided to cave in to therapy.”

Goodridge said prior to her suicide attempt, getting help for her mental health concerns was ridiculed, but eventually she had to choose her mental health over the stigma of getting help.

Edgar K. Wiggins, founding executive director of Baltimore Crisis Response Incorporated (BCRI), confirmed that stigma surrounding mental health continues to be a massive barrier to preventative care.

“One of the things we often see with African Americans, in terms of reaching out for help, is that there is not a ‘reaching out’ until there is a huge crisis,” said Wiggins. “Even then, people are often reluctant to get help.”

“There is this idea that if you get treatment you must be crazy.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.”

Signs and symptoms of mental illness include changes in sleep, appetite, mood or increased irritability.

In 2018 alone suicide was the cause of death for more than 48,000 Americans, “resulting in about one death every 11 minutes.”

“Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people 10 to 34 years of age, the fourth leading cause among people 35 to 54 years of age, and the eighth leading cause among people 55 to 64 years of age,” reads data released by the CDC.”

Mental health officials say that the number of people who think about or attempt suicide each year greatly outnumbers those who successfully take their own life. 

“In 2018, 10.7 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.3 million made a plan, and 1.4 million attempted suicide.” 

In 2016, information released by the Governor’s Commission on Suicide Prevention found that “581 Marylanders died by suicide, a 6.8% increase from the suicide rate in 2015.”

Wiggins lists a number of factors for increased risk of suicide.

“When you look at vulnerability, there are multiple factors. There is a clear relationship between clinical depression and suicide that we have been aware of along time,” he said.

“Diagnosis of a mental illness, the stress of a situation, and a history of trauma- all of that compounds the issue. All of these things can certainly make one vulnerable to or at risk for suicide.” 

Wiggins said African Americans are less likely to seek help because they are often “less trusting of mental health professionals” or have trouble finding Black providers when they do seek treatment. 

The stigma surrounding mental illness extends to drug treatment for chemical imbalances and changes in the brain due to conditions such as clinical depression and psychotic disorders.

“If someone has to be on medication for diabetes or hypertension we don’t think as much of it. We think ‘oh okay they’re getting the treatment that they need,’ and it’s the same thing with mental illness.”

“Sometimes counseling and psychotherapy can be enough,” said Wiggins. “But often we find that the most effective treatment is a combination of counseling or psychotherapy and drug treatment.”

Some of the barriers to care for mental health are cultural.

“We often have this idea that spirituality fixes everything. You know, you pray and your depression will be lifted,” said Wiggins. “Those are things you really have to fight against.” 

The Rev. Kevin Wayne Johnson, faith community commissioner for the Governor’s Commission on Suicide Prevention (the Commission), says churches should be working with mental health professionals- not making parishioners choose between the two. 

It’s not either or- it’s both,” said Johnson. “We have to have prayer with action. The two have to go hand in hand. A person who wants to commit suicide has given up. They’ve lost hope and don’t believe anymore.” 

“More clergy across the city and the nation need to realize that we have members in our churches with these thoughts and ideas.” 

The Commission was initially founded in 2009 and now consists of a range of agencies such as the Maryland Departments of Aging, Disabilities, Juvenile Services, Veteran Affairs, and many more state and local organizations representing student populations, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. Stated goals include integrating suicide prevention into all forms of health care, reducing stigma, and increasing awareness of signs and symptoms related to suicide.

Johnson joined the Commission last year, and has been using his position to spread awareness about programs and resources available to help heal the community. 

“We need to minister to the heart, the spirit, the soul and the body. The government programs minister to the body, but the church helps minister to the spirit.” 

Both Johnson and Wiggins report that anxiety and mental health issues have been exacerbated by concerns over the coronavirus. 

“It’s a very unusual time and people cope differently,” said Johnson.

“People are isolated, depressed, and anxious in response to the virus. This is affecting the entire population regardless of whether or not you have any vulnerabilities in terms of mental illness or substance abuse,” said Wiggins. 

The CDC lists economic security, housing stability, insurance that includes mental health coverage as ways to prevent suicide. Reduced access to alcohol and lethal means are encouraged. Education on coping, problem-solving, and parenting are also seen as preventative measures against suicide.

In Baltimore there are a host of resources available to help with preventative and long-term care. 

“Our 24-hour line hotline is the most important resource we have,” said Wiggins. “Calling our hotline not only gets you in touch with a trained counselor who can be helpful, but if in-person help is necessary, we also have people that can go out into the community.”

BCRI takes roughly 40,000 calls for help from the Baltimore City and metropolitan area and is part of the Suicide Prevention Lifeline network of crisis centers around the country.

Wiggins said the power of stigma is broken each time an African American speaks out about how mental health has affected their lives. 

“In my career in this town I’ve gone to funerals where I knew the individual died by suicide and there is never a mention of that. It can almost be a taboo for us and that’s problematic.”

Aside from the local and national suicide hotlines, residents can call 211 before mental health emergencies are brought on by the stressors of life. The 211 Maryland program offers resources for affordable housing, food and employment. The number can also link those in need to care for substance abuse, utility payment assistance and a wide range of issues related to social services. 

Some national organizations also have local chapters such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. 

The sooner you get help, the better your recovery can be,” said Wiggins. 

As Goodridge comes up on the one year anniversary of her suicide attempt, she acknowledges that she is in a much better place. 

“Do not give up on yourself!” she said. “Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. “Find a therapist that is right for you – not every therapist or psychiatrist is helpful, but keep trying! If you’re Black, I recommend seeking someone of your own race because in my opinion, they understand you better.”

Across the country Americans can use google searches and websites like Psychology Today, that allow you to search for therapists and psychologists using filters for location, race, gender and telehealth availability.

If you are experiencing a mental health emergency please call BCRI at (410) 433-5255.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).