Suicide Prevention’s Racism Problem

As I said yesterday, this month is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Each year, almost 50,000 people in America die by suicide. This absolutely highlights the need for suicide prevention. Of course, right now America is also facing a racial reckoning. And unfortunately, suicide prevention has a bit of a systemic racism problem as well.

This was an issue highlighted in a recent Mashable article. And as the article points out, the problem goes much farther than the unique challenges experienced by black, brown, and native american individuals. It also includes the fact that if someone were to call the suicide help line, chances are the person they’re connected to would be a white volunteer, who likely doesn’t have the experience or training to understand what that person is going through. I’ve said many times before that no mental illness is the same, and that is absolutely true when you consider the cultural differences that exist in our diverse society.

More problematic, however, is the fact that after a suicidal individual reaches out for help, the response they face could be quite different. For a white person, first responders may respond calmly, with their primary focus being saving the persons life. However, in some cases, police may respond to a suicidal person of color and perceive that person as a threat, especially if they are armed.

This was the case with an Oklahoma City Police officer, who responded with force to a suicidal man who had doused himself with lighter fluid and was trying to light himself on fire. Despite the fact two other officers were already on the scene, had assessed that the man wasn’t a threat and were now focused on trying to talk him down, this officer threatened to shoot if he didn’t drop the lighter. And that is exactly what the officer did.

That officer was charged with murder. Yet the end result of this case, or any case like it, must be more than just criminal charges. Coming to terms with our society’s systemic racism means learning from our lessons so that we don’t repeat them, so that maybe next time that person of color can be saved.

And training with law enforcement could have many benefits. Because while the situation I described above is tragic, the issue of suicide and law enforcement is a complex one. Law enforcement as a profession faces increased risk for depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Training officers how to recognize and respond to mental health crises could save their lives as well as the lives of the people they serve.

And so, as we look for ways we can focus our efforts during this year’s suicide prevention month, one of the biggest ways we can do so is by recognizing the racism baked into the system, and working to correct it. And this is something we all need to do. Because while I care very deeply about ending the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide, the truth is I don’t know enough about how to advocate for that change when it comes to persons of color. Yet this month is a perfect opportunity for me, and for everyone else involved in mental health advocacy, to learn.

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