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Addressing Mental Illness and Suicide in the African American Community

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — September 3, 2019 — 4 min read
Suicide is the third highest cause of death for African American males ages 15 to 24 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We don’t talk about the way suicide is affecting black men. We don’t talk about how mental illness affects black men,” said Victor Armstrong, former Vice President of Behavioral Health at Atrium and current ‪Director of the NC Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, Substance Abuse Services at NC DHHS.

Over the summer, local healthcare workers, elected officials, religious leaders and community members came together for an event called, “Sharing Hope – Mental Health Stigma in the Africa American Community,” that was organized by NAMI Charlotte and sponsored by Cardinal Innovations Healthcare at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. The discussion focused on the signs and symptoms of mental illness, how to talk about mental health, and addressing the stigma around mental illness. Information about available resources was also shared.

“There are nearly 3,000 suicides annually among African Americans and 80 percent of those are black men,” Armstrong said, adding that the attitude many African Americans have toward mental illness is one issue that needs to be addressed.

“We make sense of our world based on our narrative. We in the African American community have a narrative around mental health. We have a narrative around suicide. The narrative is, ‘That’s other people’s problem,’ ” he said, adding that surveys of African Americans have shown that 63% believe depression is a sign of weakness.

“We see ourselves as being more resilient. We endured slavery. We can endure anything. But us not talking about it, is having a negative effect on us,” he said.

One negative impact of not talking about it has been an increased rate of suicides among African American children ages 5 to 12, who have twice the suicide rate of white children of the same age range, according to a study published in 2018 that looked at data from 2001 to 2015.

More research is needed to develop effective prevention strategies that take into consideration cultural values, behaviors, patterns of risk, and sex or gender identity, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC). The SPRC recommends targeting those at highest risk and improving access to mental health services.

“There’s a lack of mental health and depression studies on black people. Black males are more likely to be misdiagnosed with schizophrenia or other mental illness than any other race,” Armstrong said.

Adding to the problem, is the lack of black psychiatrists and psychologists working in the field, he said. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2015, only 4% of the U.S. psychology workforce is black while 5% are Asian, another 5% are Hispanic, and 86% are white.

Dr. Vernon Barksdale, a psychiatrist with Novant Health said, “We as mental health professionals owe it to our community leaders to discuss how we can work together.”

Rep. Carla Cunningham (D-Charlotte) also attended the event and spoke on a panel about her experiences with her son, who started exhibiting signs of mental illness when he was 13 and has expressed suicidal thoughts. She said her son, who is grown now, is her motivation for wanting to raise awareness about mental illness and improve how the state addresses it among its citizens.

“It was a struggle for me because I was a nurse. I was supposed to fix this,” she said. “Just because you’re in healthcare doesn’t mean you have all of the answers. You need to find that expertise.”

The Reverend Major Stewart, PhD, the Senior Pastor at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, talked about the role of the religious community in reaching out to individuals who may need mental health assistance.

“I think it’s a team effort,” Stewart said, adding that sometimes the best way to help is to find a professional trained to assist with mental health conditions while standing and walking with the person who needs the help.

Suicide is the number one cause of all deaths in jail, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Peer Support Specialist Ron Clark served on the panel to discuss his experiences as an individual in recovery and as a support for others. Addiction led Clark down a path of homelessness and incarceration until he decided he wanted to change, he said. Now he’s been in recovery for several years and is trained to provide peer support to others seeking recovery. He meets with inmates at the Mecklenburg County jail regularly, teaching them what he’s learned and providing them with a real example of how their lives can and will change.

“I go into the same jails where I’ve been locked up,” Clark said. “I share what I’ve learned with some of the same people I’ve used with and with some of the same people I’ve had mental illness issues with and I show them, ‘Hey, we can change.’ ”

Adrianne Pinkney, PhD, with B. Well: Live Consciously, also served on the panel and talked about her experiences with anxiety and the stigma around mental illness, challenging the audience to proactively work on their mental health and happiness. “We’ve got to be more emotionally healthy. Put your time and energy into you and your spiritual well-being and health. I encourage each of you to be intentional about your well-being and happiness.”


If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, there is help.
  • Call 911
  • Call our 24/7 Access and Crisis team at 1-800-939-5911
  • Call the the 24/7 Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or chat online
  • For people who identify as LGBTQ, can also call the TrevorLifeline 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, chat online, or text “TREVOR” to 1-202-304-1200
  • For past and current members of the U.S. military, can also call Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1), chat online, or text 838255.

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Updated on October 6, 2020 to add that Victor Armstrong became Director of the NC Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, Substance Abuse Services at NC DHHS in March 2020. 
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