On January 21, just days before launching his music career, 26-year-old Ian Alexander Jr.— the son of Academy Award winning actress Regina King – died by suicide. A devastating loss for his family, friends and all who knew him, King’s death caused the topic of mental health in the Black community to rise once again to the surface. It was only nine days later when news of lawyer, entertainment correspondent and 2019 Miss USA Cheslie Kryst’s death by suicide, at age 30, sent shockwaves and heartache nationwide.
These tragic deaths have prompted many conversations regarding mental health in the Black community, and highlight several important issues relating to Black mental wellness. According to a 2019 Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) study, the age-adjusted suicide rate for Black populations in 2019 made up over half the overall US suicide rate. This is an alarming statistic that cannot be overlooked.
For Black Americans, both historical experiences and present-day realities influence and potentially amplify our incidence of mental health issues. Additionally, the stigma attached to asking for help with mental health issues, access to care and its acceptance, as well as a lack of confidence in mental health treatment when they do receive it, are all factors that continue to negatively impact the outcomes for Black Americans.
Expectations — both internally and externally — and the maintenance required of a lifestyle and accomplishments like that of Alexander and Kryst can be enormously taxing and stressful, not to mention the additionally exhausting onset of a global pandemic. As suicidal thoughts and attempts are rising among Black Americans, we must not let this tremendous loss of life deter the progress and attention finally surrounding the topic of Black mental wellness.
A positive indicator of change and progress is visible via the 2019 SPRC study that further shows that, compared to the overall US population, Black adults reported less percentages of past-year serious thoughts of suicide and a past-year suicide plan. So clearly, now is not the time to let our foot off the accelerator.
In addition to having improved racial and ethnic disparities among mental health workers, professional mentors stand to make a tremendous impact. Having a mentor who has navigated the unique challenges that often face young black professionals can be essential to their future success. Being able to identify and support other people who look like them, experiencing the same things and having discussions about it, is tremendously important.
There has been a progression in discussion and acceptance in young urban men and women that mental health is a genuine topic. Representation impacts the comfort, confidence and cultural competence of care received. We as Black Americans need to be better at having these conversations. We must take this moment and use it as a catalyst to fight stigma, share information and prevent tragic circumstances like this from happening again.
The loss of Ian Alexander and Cheslie Kryst are heartbreaking reminders of the work we still need to put in as a society with regards to mental health awareness, and more specifically, Black mental wellness. It also stands as a harbinger that, without appropriate funding or meaningful access to mental health services, what will be the cost to everyone further down the road?
Shawn Bryson is Clinical Director at Rose Hill Center, a Holly-based residential psychiatric treatment and rehabilitation facility offering a comprehensive range of services for adults with serious mental illness. For more info, visit rosehillcenter.org