What I Want Black People to Understand About Suicide and Depression

My Thing Is: Depression doesn’t mean that something “happened.” Not all therapists are effective. Suicidal thoughts can signal an opportunity to heal. Understanding these things is a matter of life and death.

Chakka Reeves

What happened next? The crisis center billed me $200 for my consultation and referral to a local mental health center, which I stopped attending after three appointments because I had a pretty bad experience. To make a long story short, the counselor was a deeply religious man who insisted I was depressed because I didn’t have Jesus in my life, some weird guy in the waiting room kept making comments about my legs, and the doctor who was supposed to prescribe me the antidepressant medication that, at the time, I wanted to take, never showed up for my appointment.

I also made it to the following week, to my regular therapist, to my co-workers who were very understanding, and back to friends and family who, contrary to the mean voice in my head, didn’t hate me or think I was a terrible person.

I was lucky. But as I continued to manage my own depression and practice better thinking habits, I paid closer attention to how people discussed suicide. Two sentiments stood out, and they bothered me deeply:

1. Righteous indignation (How could they? How selfish! They took the easy way out.)

2. Misguided empathy (Who can blame them, after what happened to them?)

The first reaction is understandable, especially if the person who ended his or her life was a loved one. After the initial shock of my friend’s suicide, I was angry at her. My anger subsided once I remembered that one of the main ways that depression kills is by making temporary, specific situations seem permanent and general. Sarah didn’t kill herself to hurt me or anyone else. She just got stuck in a temporary moment that the disease told her was permanent.

The second response may seem like the more compassionate of the two, but it may be worse, and here’s why: Yes, depression can be brought on or be aggravated by stressful or tragic life events, but it is a disease that prevents the person from developing effective coping mechanisms. In other words, even if you have experienced extreme loss, a real desire to end your life is a sign that depression is interfering with your healing process.

If you are thinking about suicide, take a step back. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or another service and talk to someone.

If someone tells you he or she is thinking about suicide, stay calm and encourage the person to talk. Avoid saying anything on this list, and talk with the person about seeking help. This last step is crucial; you can support someone who’s depressed or suicidal, but you can’t help him or her on your own. The person needs to talk to a professional.

The trick with depression is doing what you need to do to make it to the next day. Even though my experience with public mental health services was comically bad, it got me to the next day, to the next week and then to the one after that. I am reminded of this each time I hear about another person who got stuck, felt their temporary stretched out into forever, depression firmly insulating their hearts and minds from the love that was around them.