Suicide and African Americans: A Secret Epidemic Unveiled
In Detroit and beyond, the Black community tends to close its eyes and lips to suicide, although hard numbers tell a different story. Maybe it's time to talk about this tragic and taboo topic.
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At first blush, it’s difficult to fathom.
Lively, attractive and blessed with that youthful countenance Black folks are known for, it’s hard to detect the kind of turmoil Karen Denise Caldwell has lived through.
Yet underpinning the satisfying life the Detroiter has carved out—married 33 years with two daughters, a physician and psychologist—is a dark phase she only recently began to share, one long considered an anomaly among African Americans.
As a teenager, she was fraught with depression and thoughts of suicide after her family relocated from Detroit’s east side to Belleville during the 1967 riots.
Her life on a farm with her grandparents, who didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, was consumed with the daily tedium of farming, housework—and loneliness.
It was so unbearable that one day, when she was about 13, she tried to end her life.
“My world kind of crashed,” says Caldwell, recalling the circumstances that drove her to turn on a propane-gas stove without igniting the burners, hoping to fall asleep and never wake up again.
“Everything that I knew changed,” she says. “There was no emotional nurturing. There was too much work to be done. I was just so unhappy. I didn’t want to be here anymore.”
Throughout history, African Americans have had lower rates of suicide than other groups in the United States, but starting 40 years ago the trend shifted.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, African-American suicide-related deaths spiked more than 60 percent, unlike any other ethnic or racial group, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And a study released in May, “Silence Is Not Golden: Attitudes Towards Suicide in the African American Community,” indicates the trend continues upward.