Black Teens and Suicide: For the Love of Siwe

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Siwe Monsanto, August 2010

Siwe Monsanto was a girl after my own heart — talkative, intelligent, funny. Even at age 4, she had the enthusiasm, confidence and spark that all girls are born with but lose somewhere between diapers and dorm rooms. I met her; her brother, Sule; and her mother, Dionne, within months of my moving to New York City.

Nervous and far from home, I fell easily into Dionne's open-armed offer to spend time with her family in Harlem. Our friendship grew steadily, easily. Dionne was my adopted big sister, and Siwe, well, she was my little friend. My girl.

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As time went on and I began to wear New York as my own city, I moved to Brooklyn. Harlem felt like another time zone. Between distance and being a touring member of the Def Poetry Jam cast, I saw Dionne and Siwe and Sule less and less, but email and the occasional phone call kept us connected. Unfortunately, honest conversation — the kind that goes deeper than "Sule got an A in math" or "Siwe grew an inch, with her pretty self" — was much more likely when Dionne and I could physically connect.

One day, during a break in the tour, I met Dionne for lunch. We spent time catching up, but the conversation shifted when I told her about my recent bipolar II diagnosis. Dionne exhaled softly as she listened and was filled with questions and concern. She asked about treatment and the stress of the tour. She wondered if I needed to come by the house and stay with her and the babies. My pride and foolishness had me shaking my head no before the words left her mouth.

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After a pause in the conversation, Dionne looked up and said four words that, to this day, are seared on my brain: "I'm worried about Siwe."

Dionne described, with the quiet crack of heartbreak that only a mother knows, how sad her baby girl got at times. How she turned inside herself. How she got lost. How her tears fell easily and often. Siwe was 6 years old then.

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Last Wednesday she committed suicide at the age of 15.

That she lived to be 15 is a testimony to the constructive care her mother took to save her — to keep her here with us for just a little while longer. Dionne did everything she possibly could to save her baby girl, but at the end of the day, it was out of her hands. Siwe's depression was a cancer that attacked her will to live.

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After our lunch nine years ago, Dionne had thrown herself into saving her child. There were doctors and hospitals and medication. There was dance and music and writing. There was the first suicide attempt. Then the second. The third. Then the cutting. Then the black hole of depression that engulfed her.

Siwe was living with a pain that no one should ever have to deal with. But she was a fighter. She remained transparent and courageous, sharing her story with others who might benefit from her journey. She wrote essays and stories and an unpublished novel. Her writing took on a maturity and clarity that most adults would struggle to express.

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Though Siwe was an extraordinary and special young woman, sadly, she's not unique. There are countless "Siwes" out there — young girls born carrying the weight of the world on their narrow shoulders. They struggle out of bed and into the world every day, only to come crawling back deflated and discouraged.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the third leading cause of death in teenagers is suicide. And although the rate of suicide among African-American teenagers has been historically lower than in their white counterparts, black teenage suicide rates have increased dramatically in recent years. Researchers estimate that at some point before they reach 17 years of age, 4 percent of black teens, and more than 7 percent of black teen females, will attempt suicide.

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I was one of those girls, inexplicably turning myself over to sadness for as long as I could remember. I never actively tried to harm myself, but I do remember giving up on helping myself live. I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. I stopped taking care of myself. I didn't have the strength to encourage this act of living. I wasn't sure if it was worth it.

People don't really understand suicide. It's easy to dismiss it as a selfish act. I won't argue for or against that point. However, although suicide is about those left behind, being suicidal has nothing to do with anyone but the person suffering. Losing the will to live or to continue the simple act of living is not an easy place to be. When the depression becomes so thick that you can't see anything but hurt, it is a last resort to find peace in a chaotic sadness.

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I'm not advocating suicide by any stretch of the imagination, but I do believe that the first step in helping those who are suicidal is to acknowledge and accept how real their feelings are. Well-meaning people attempt to downplay these feelings out of love and fear, but trying to convince someone that what she or he is experiencing isn't real will only make that person feel more like an outcast. Getting out of bed and dusting yourself off, even kneeling in prayer, feels impossible.

People who suffer from depression need permission to feel what they feel without fear of being dismissed, sent to hell or sent to Jesus. Our young men and women are under increasing pressure to live in a world that is constantly changing and challenging.

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Falling victim to the stress isn't about a lack of strength or faith; it is merely about a need for support and understanding. It is important to be able to pay attention, lend support and offer the tools necessary to increase wellness.

Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian-born poet-writer and mental-health advocate. She is currently working on a memoir documenting her life with bipolar II disorder. Follow her on Twitter.

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