African American Suicide
Why a 15-year-old Girl’s Death Should Raise Alarm Bells Among Black Parents
BY KIM WHITING
14-year-old Marcie Gerald was an honor roll student at Homewood-Flossmoor High School School in Chicago’s south suburbs, a typical young teen who liked to change up her hairstyles and paint her nails in colorful shades. She was into health food, liked shopping for natural soaps and skin care products, and followed the glamorous lives of models.
Her mom, Elizabeth Gerald, says, “She was a little sophisticated for her age. She was involved in organizations that empowered young women and focused on community service.” Elizabeth says Marcie had dreams of attending Harvard Law School one day.
Yet three years ago, violence turned Marcie’s life tragically upside down, and she would never be the same. Today, her mother has made it her life’s mission to honor her daughter by bringing attention to issues she believes are often unspoken or ignored in African American communities nationwide—issues that ultimately ended her daughter’s life.
The Attack that Changed Everything
In January 2014, Marcie was walking home from the library when a 27-year-old convicted rapist, just released from prison, attacked her; she was brutally raped by the stranger. Hospitalized for days, she was so injured she couldn’t even walk.
Following the attack, Elizabeth says her daughter began having anxiety and panic attacks, and suffered from depression and nightmares.
“After the rape the light went out in her,” Elizabeth explains. “She stopped wanting to get her hair and nails done and started wearing baggy dark colored clothes. She stopped trying to look attractive and maybe this was because she was afraid to attract another assault. She stopped going outside and wouldn’t even go to the store anymore.”
Seeking Spiritual Support
Elizabeth called in prayer support. She says, “I was raised in the church and to believe in the Lord, and I raised Marcie the same way. We both had a strong faith before Marcie was raped. Afterwards, I don’t know where I would have been without my faith in God. Marcie still held onto her faith, but I don’t know how strong it was. I prayed constantly during those days. I had my friends, family, and the church praying too. Everyone was praying for her. Prayer helps, but people need more than prayer through traumas like this.”
According to Elizabeth, many African Americans see suicide and mental illness as “white people problems” — problems that don’t happen to good black people living faithful, righteous lives; problems that can be averted solely through extra prayer.
But Elizabeth says Marcie’s pain was exacerbated when, during a court appearance, her unremorseful attacker winked and blew kisses at her. and told her how pretty she was. Elizabeth says the trial re-injured Marcie emotionally. Marcie’s attacker took a plea deal and was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison.
This incident in court, three months after her attack, was so traumatic for Marcie that her mother says it spurred her first suicide attempt; her brother found her lying on the floor of her bedroom foaming from the mouth after drinking bleach. The second time she tried to take her own life, she cut herself.
Marcie survived but Elizabeth says that as a result of her daughter’s fragile mental health she would scrub herself until her skin was raw. Seeing her daughter in so much pain was unbearable.
The Need for Professional Help as Well
Elizabeth sought professional help for her daughter. She was hospitalized for a time, prescribed medication and underwent regular counseling. Because Marcie’s rapist then threatened to have members of a Chicago gang harm her and her family, she began homeschooling following the attack. She was later placed in a therapeutic school and still maintained her honor roll standing while getting treatment from a mental health agency.
“When a person is dealing with some sort of mental illness they need to be seen by a professional, whether it’s a counselor, psychiatrist or psychologist,” Elizabeth says. “In the African American community, because of stigmas, we have the tendency to push things under the rug. When it comes to sexual assault a lot of families don’t get justice or help because they say ‘what goes on in my house stays on in my house.’ They’re afraid of being judged. They don’t want people to know that someone in their family is struggling with a mental illness or dealing with a trauma because they think people will label them as crazy. Everyone is so worried about what the next person thinks about them that they refuse to get help.”
Marcie seemed to be getting better but then, one night in July 2015, a year and a half after her attack, her mood changed. Marcie, now 15, took a bath with lavender oil and almond milk beads and joined her mother on the family couch. She laid down next to Elizabeth, told her she loved her, and fell asleep. She would never wake up. Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, Marcie had overdosed on a narcotic-like pain medication prescribed to her.
Elizabeth says, “Marcie’s death is the greatest pain that I have ever endured and I will never fully recover from it. Initially I was full of self-blame, but people were very supportive and helped me see that I had done what I could see to do.”
Addressing Mental Illness and Suicide Without Fear or Judgment
Elizabeth wishes that she had known more about mental illness and suicide when Marcie was struggling. “Only the school was told about her suicide attempts,” she says. “Now I know how important it is to talk fully about what’s going on –it’s the only way that a person can really get the help they need.”
Elizabeth recently decided to try and turn the tragedy into something positive to help others. She started the Marcie Jonea Gerald Movement, a nonprofit in Marcie’s honor. “I share my experiences in schools, churches, etc. and open conversations about suicide, mental illness and sexual assault,” Elizabeth explains. “And also talk about bullying, domestic violence and other issues facing youth.”
Elizabeth is also working on the legislative front to get a bill passed that would create harsher sentences for any individuals whose actions or attacks tangentially cause their victims to commit suicide.
“Too often I hear that suicide doesn’t happen to African American youth. The truth is that it’s happening in record numbers. In order to save our children we have to step beyond the religious stigma, embarrassment and judgment in order to educate ourselves, tell people what’s going on, and seek help.”
The Stats and Stigma of Suicide in African American Culture
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for black young people between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics, a medical journal, found that suicide rates among African American children have nearly doubled over the last two decades, and that death by hanging amongst African American children ages 5 to 11 has tripled.
A 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of high school students revealed that 13.2 percent of black teens “had serious thoughts of suicide in the past 12 months”, compared to 15.8 percent of all teens nationwide. 11.1 percent of black teens had made suicide plans, compared to 12.8 percent overall. 8.3 percent had attempted suicide, compared to 7.8 percent of all students nationwide, and 2.4 percent had gotten medical attention for a suicide attempt, the same percentage of all U.S. teens.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, black adolescents reporting parental conflict were 6.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than black adolescents who did not report parental conflict. Among black teens, perceived racism and discrimination along with social and economic disadvantage may lead to having no hope for the future, which is another risk factor for suicide. And black youth are substantially less likely than white youth to have used a mental health service in the year during which they seriously thought about or attempted suicide.
Dr. Kimya Dennis, a sociologist and criminologist with Salem College in North Carolina, engages in community outreach and research on mental health, suicide and suicidal self-harm, in African American populations. She says she was raised with the same stigmas about suicide, mental illness and sexual assault that Elizabeth Gerald discusses.
“Contrary to popular belief, African Americans are extremely conservative, traditional and place heavy emphasis on normality, morality and religion.” Dennis explains. “Generally speaking, African Americans tend to attribute emotional and mental issues as resulting from a lack of faith or as a side effect of an unrighteous life and therefore as something that can be ignored or fixed through meditation (rather than medication), prayer, or some equivalent. This attempt at self-healing can also span into substance abuse, overeating, and violence.“
Dennis says that the statistics on suicide in black populations don’t accurately reflect the breadth of the problem. One issue that skews the stats is that suicide by gunshot is sometimes wrongly or erroneously reported as “death by gunshot” and then assumed to be a homicide instead of suicide.
Additionally, Dennis believes that when African American youth choose criminal and gang life they are intentionally placing themselves in harm’s way with the expectation that they will be harmed and possibly killed. She sees this as, unequivocally, a form of suicide.
“Suicide, mental illness and the trauma associated with sexual assault are not well-accepted topics in most African American communities,” Dennis says. “The tendency is to ignore the problems or blame other people rather than attempting to address individual and community-concerns. This is understandable considering that, historically, blacks that have attempted to empower black communities have often been judged by some whites as acknowledging that blacks have problems and that blacks are essentially the problem.”
Understanding History in Order to Change Today’s Perceptions
Further examining history, Dennis says that the stigma around suicide and mental illness for African Americans, and the obstacles to seeking support, began with the patriarchal social structure in Africa that valued strength over emotion and a deep spirituality that was then reinforced when they were introduced to Christianity. “One turned to God for most challenges and depended on God for protection,” she explains.
Experiences associated with slavery significantly deepened the stigmas, Dennis says. In order to survive being taken away from their families, homes, cultures and languages, and to endure the traumas of slavery (and later, discrimination), people of African descent were encouraged and even forced to be strong and resilient rather than emotional. Starting right at the gate, a lack of emotionality has been associated with strength. As a result, African American women (unlike women in most other racial and ethnic groups), are respected for being strong and even mean rather than emotional. Similarly, African American men are considered strong for being unemotional. Many are taught to hide emotions and to express emotion only through anger and violence–through a display of invulnerability.
Also serving to form current views on suicide among African Americans is a legendary tale told through generations about enslaved passengers aboard a ship in 1803. After enduring the horrific trip from Africa to the Colonies, the chained slaves were packed under the deck of a small vessel to be transported to an island. During this voyage the slaves rebelled, took control of the ship and drowned their captors. They grounded the ship and, under the direction of a high chief, walked in unison into a creek to drown, singing “The Water Spirit brought us, the Water Spirit will take us home.” This was a spiritual ritual in which they accepted the protection of their god and death in order to escape slavery.
Says Dennis, “The interpretation of this story by whites is that the Africans committed group suicide. In contrast, many blacks consider the actions of the Africans to have been, not suicide, but a rebellious, spiritual ritual done to figuratively, or literally, escape a horrific situation and be returned to their homes in West Africa. This interpretation is representative of the tendency for African Americans to believe suicide is uncommon and misreported in black communities. This is furthered when many black families and many predominantly black social institutions, including religious institutions, overtly and covertly teach that suicide and mental health are exaggerated or nonexistent in the black culture, that it’s debatable in terms of who is “to blame” or that suicide is simply a matter of a lack of faith and not praying enough.“
Dennis goes on to say that these assumptions and beliefs are also generalized to victims of crimes such as rape and sexual assault, as well as to those struggling with mental illness. Victims of rape and sexual assault are often blamed for having placed themselves in danger and it is not uncommon that they are seen as having deserved the sexual assault because they are gay, weak, a “ho,” or were in some way living an “unrighteous life”.
Dennis believes these cultural stigmas often prove to be too much for victims like Marcie Gerald to contend with. When she took her life, her actions, born of desperation and hopelessness, were most likely tainted by the belief that what had happened to her, and how it was continuing to affect her life, were indications of weakness and a lack of faith. Marcie’s story highlights the changes in perception that need to be made in order to create an environment that cultivates healthier, happier black youth — a more compassionate and understanding view that strengthens those experiencing emotional and psychological challenges.
Overcoming the Scars of Both Rape and Suicide Can Take a Lifetime
Tay Ramey’s story also illuminates the many issues and factors that surround suicidal behavior for African American youth. Tay is a 47-year-old African American man from Richmond, California who survived hanging himself at age 11.
Tay was a gifted child who skipped two grades in elementary school and earned a computer scholarship for his math abilities. He also excelled at sports, particularly cross-country running. Apart from playing with his friends, Tay’s favorite pastimes as a child were going to Sunday school, feeding the homeless at the local park once a week with his grandmother, fishing and taking care of his dad’s pigeons.
Tay, drinking from a soda, surrounded by his family, in the 1970s.
Tay was raised in one of the most disenfranchised, depressed and violent towns in the U.S. As a young child he had to learn to cope with violence in the neighborhood and adapt to streets where just a walk home from school could lead to injury or death. He also dealt with violence and trauma at home. Tay explains in his own words:
Until I was about five, my life was pretty good. My mom was the warm and loving person that she is to this day and always my biggest fan. My dad showed love by taking me fishing and including me in his hobby of raising pigeons. When I was about five, Dad suddenly turned into a monster and I learned from that experience that people could turn on you at any time without any notice. I have never been trusting of the world and my anxiety and the feeling that I am never completely safe probably started with that time in my life.
Starting at around the age of seven my father began regularly molesting and raping me. My father justified the molestation and rape by telling me that he was preparing me for a world that would be even crueler to me.
By the time my father got started on me, he had already been abusing my mother for a couple of years. I would hear flesh pounding flesh behind their closed door and at times my mom would beg for him to “kill her and get it over with.” I would cry because I felt completely helpless to do anything to help her.
My father told me that if I told my mother or anyone about what he was doing to me, he would show my mom and me what real pain was. I didn’t take that as an idle threat. But even if my father hadn’t threatened me, I still wouldn’t have told anyone. In the streets we were taught that to expose yourself as having been a victim of any circumstance was to expose a weakness that others would take advantage of. We never got the chance to take care of the pain that came with our trauma.
We all have our self-protection mechanisms and mine was always violence or keeping an aura of violence around me. I understood that by pushing people away I was not giving myself the opportunity to get to the core of what was going on with me, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I held it all in and let it fester into something monstrous. I had a lot of emotions bottled up, but anger was the only emotion that was acceptable for a boy in my neighborhood, so I channeled all of it: grief, sadness, anxiety and hopelessness — into anger. It wasn’t long before I felt a hatred for the world so fierce and violent that it hurt to look into another person’s eyes. I began acting out and was so totally lost and unyielding to my mother and everyone else that all they could do was pray for my soul.
But it doesn’t take this kind of pain to set a kid on the path of destruction. Growing up poor, surrounded by people who feel hopeless, who lack belief in themselves, who work too hard for too little, who battle with depression and addiction and underneath it all, very low self-worth. Growing up believing that the world at large wished that poor black boys like me weren’t in it. Growing up in a community where brutality is just what is. These things can take a serious toll on a kid, especially when he feels like there’s no safe place to talk about it or doesn’t know how to talk about it.
At the age of 11 I stole a car and took it joyriding and ended up doing my first stint in “juvie.” I felt unsafe in juvie and wanted more than anything to be home. I missed my mom terribly.
One day a counselor grabbed me by the shirt, hauled me across the room and chastised me. I felt totally humiliated and believed that the other boys would see me as weak and prey on me. I felt like a small animal locked in a cage with predators. I wanted to hurt the counselor in order to redeem myself in the eyes of the other boys, but didn’t believe I could pull that off so I was stuck.
The only way that I could see to escape the situation was to kill myself. I plotted a way to hang myself when the other kids headed to dinner. I hung a sheet from the vent in the ceiling, stood on my bed and wrapped the sheet around my neck. My only thoughts as I got ready to step off the bed were that I wanted to go home and that I was afraid that hanging myself would hurt. I didn’t think about the fact that I was ending my life. I didn’t see it that way. I saw what I was about to do as the only way to escape my situation.
I stepped off the bed and don’t remember anything after that point. Apparently the vent didn’t hold long enough to kill me, but long enough that I went unconscious. I fell to the ground and the boy in the cell next to mine had been using the toilet and hadn’t yet gone to chow, so he found me on the ground with my legs violently shaking and called for help.
When I came to I was on the way to a hospital and then transferred to a psychiatric hospital where I stayed for a month. In the hospital I received counseling. I liked it but I didn’t get much out of it because I was too afraid that if I started feeling all the emotions that I had bottled up I would lose control, do damage and possibly humiliate myself again.
For more than 20 years, about the only emotion I expressed was rage and, in order to look and feel invulnerable, I acted out violently in many ways. I didn’t care if I died. I also tried to kill myself another time. Like my first suicide attempt, the second attempt was ignited when I felt that I was vulnerable, unprotected, trapped and when I wanted to go “home.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the doors to my healing were first opened when I met my wife. She was the first non-family member or close friend (that I knew of) who saw through my self-protective toughness and violence and believed that I was more than a thug. Her love and acceptance of me was so nonjudgmental and unconditional that I felt safe with her and was able to begin to share my experiences and touch on my harbored emotions. She was the first person, other than my mother, who I shared my molestation and rape experiences with and she reacted with so much compassion and understanding that it helped me start the healing process and to feel safer about going into my emotions.
From there, I began to see counselors. Some were helpful and some were not, some “got me” and some didn’t. But the key to healing, for me, was about being able to share my victimization without the risk of being judged, misunderstood or preyed upon and to know that no matter what I shared, I would still be loved and respected.
Finding the right help
Dr. Dennis says most health experts are not African American and as a result it can be difficult to seek professional help when the health experts are not familiar with one’s culture or don’t have training in addressing cultural variations. She says many health experts can then be unintentionally patronizing and condescending, creating obstacles to African Americans when they attempt to get help for their emotional and psychological issues
Dennis says, “When I talk to black communities about suicide, I give examples of famous and respected black people who have killed themselves. I want the Black community to know that suicide does happen in our culture and that good, strong and highly respectable people can experience the kind of hopelessness that leads to the taking of one’s life. I want them to know that suicide is not about being weak, unfaithful or unrighteous.”
Marcie Gerald would have turned 17 last month, and knowing that her daughter will never graduate from high school, or go to college, or get married, will forever haunt her mother.
“Everybody becomes depressed at one time or another and everybody goes through hard times,” Elizabeth says. “Going through periods of depression or anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of. We have got to come together as a community and start being loving, kind and compassionate to one another.”
Rashanah Baldwin contributed to this report.
Kim Whiting can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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