THE BLOG
07/27/2015 02:56 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2016

Sandra Bland and the Dilemma of Mental Illness in the Black Community

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Even as the nation, or part of the nation, grapples with the sad case of Sandra Bland, who died while in police custody, there is a part of this story which is really being ignored, and shouldn't be.

Official autopsy results have concluded that Ms. Bland died as the result of suicide. The family vehemently disagrees, as does much of the nation, but what if she did?

Not long ago, within a time span of six months, I was called to pray with families of young teen girls from two different families who had tried to commit suicide. These girls were beautiful, were good students, and seemed to have everything they needed, and much of what they wanted. To see them in public was to see what appeared to be two well-adjusted teens. They were feathers in the caps of their parents. One even prayed with a group of older women when her young cousin had apparently tried to commit suicide, and her prayer was powerful.

Yet, six months later, she herself tried to take her own life.

Teen suicide is, unfortunately, not new news...but these attempts stand out because these young people were/are African-American. If suicide is scorned by religious types in the white community as a sin, it is regarded in the black community almost as an affront to God and as evidence of Satan working overtime.

"We are not going to let Satan have his way," declared one distraught mother. "This is nothing but the devil."

But, regardless of Satan's involvement, later discussions disclosed that one of the young women had not only tried to commit suicide but also that she had actively cut herself.

"Cutting," said the amazed group of praying women, "is not something that black people do." And needless to say, "cutting" was out of the realm of African-American teens as well.

Not so. The suicide rate amongst African-American teens has historically been reported lower than that of white teens in this country, but the numbers are changing. According to a 2009 article published by the National Institute of Mental Health, "suicide is the third leading cause of death in all teens in the United States. Historically, black teens and young adults have lower suicide rates than white teens, but in recent decades, the suicide rate for black youth has increased dramatically."

The study said that before they are before the age of 17, four percent of all black teens will have attempted suicide, and 7 percent of all black teen females will have attempted to kill themselves.
As far as cutting, a study conducted by the British Journal of Psychiatry concluded that black girls are more likely to self-harm than white girls but are less likely to get treatment. Black boys are hurting themselves, too, apparently by any means necessary. They are punching themselves, stabbing themselves, pulling their hair ...The stories are profoundly disturbing and probably not all that well-known.

When the two young girls I speak of attempted suicide, the answer of the women around them was to pray. And we did. But in my soul, I was uneasy. Prayer is good and effective ...but when a person attempts to commit suicide, prayer is not enough.

A suicide attempt comes from deep depression or worse. It comes from sense of not being heard, or perhaps being afraid to talk about what is on one's mind. To pray without getting to the heart of the matter might very well speed the distressed young person to his or her death.

In the case of one teen I was told about who attempted suicide, the core of her problem turned out to be one of sexuality. She was gay and was afraid to tell her parents and afraid that God was going to put her in hell. There was no way out for her; she couldn't talk with her parents and she felt like she was unworthy to pray.

There is a problem. Culturally, in general, mental illness is something which we do not talk about and definitely do not admit to. In the African-American community, that reticence is even greater. People who believe in Jesus don't get mental illness seems to be the prevailing belief, and if there is a problem, mental or physical, there is "nothing" that God cannot do.

That puts an unfair burden on God, who put in place human beings who have trained to deal with the mentally ill, just as there are in place people who give people organ transplants. We don't want to mess with the sanctity of God, however, and so kids remain silent. Kids who are mentally ill grow up to be criminals who commit suicide while walking; some, unfortunately, end up murdering people.

Perhaps they are really trying to murder themselves.

My prayer is that Sandra Bland did not commit suicide. My prayer is that this young woman was not carrying a torment within that finally cracked under the pressure of being incarcerated for what can only be said was an offense which did not deserve arrest, much less being thrown in jail.
We had better wake up. If mental illness is a major problem in the general population, it is triple that in the African-American community, exacerbated by the fact that either those afflicted cannot talk about it for fear of going to hell, or not being able to get treatment for it because nobody will admit that the African-American community, God notwithstanding, is not immune to mental illness and may in fact be more prone to suffer because of it.

I am praying that Sandra Bland was not a statistic that was never reported. She didn't deserve to have to hide her torment, if in fact she was a tormented soul. She might not have committed suicide; time and more investigation will verify or nullify the conclusions on that.

But what if she did?