Professional News
'Code of Silence' Complicates Recovery
Psychiatric News
Volume 41 Number 23 page 14-14

"The grieving process becomes more difficult for African Americans simply because they [have] no forum in which to grieve when they lost a loved one to suicide," wrote Donna Barnes, Ph.D., in an article in the August 2006 Journal of Black Psychology.

Barnes reported on her extensive interviews with 19 black families who lost a family member to suicide.

"Unfortunately, some African Americans continue to deny that suicide is a problem within the black community," she said. "This community denial makes it difficult for families to heal when they have lost someone to suicide."

Barnes writes as both a researcher and a participant. The spark for her article came when she found herself the only black member of a survivors' support group after her son committed suicide. Very few African Americans attended support groups, even as black suicide rates rose from 1980 to 1995. Those who chose to do so had to go outside their own community.

To better understand the experience of bereaved survivors, she spent several hours talking with them in the course of a semistructured interview.

Within the black community, survivors were met with "an unspoken but pervasive code of silence," said Barnes. "Suicide may represent not only an individual failure, but also the failure of the community."

Black churches offered little help, said the respondents, possibly because they consider suicide an unpardonable sin.

Often, others tried to minimize individual suffering by placing it in the context of the historical trials of blacks in the United States. Someone told a woman whose son had killed himself: "Why not forget about it and get on with your life? We have survived hundreds of years of strife, and we should be able to handle this."

In other cases, surviving spouses felt they were being blamed for the suicide, deepening the wounds they felt.

Her study suggests that while whites and blacks may have similar difficulties with stigmatization or finding an appropriate setting to grieve, whites more often consider suicide a product of mental illness and thus are more likely to seek help and find support.

"Grief is difficult if there is no means of social or community support," she concluded. The grieving process becomes more difficult for African Americans... simply because there is nowhere to grieve in their own cultural community."

"The Aftermath of Suicide Among African Americans" is posted at<http://jbp.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/32/3/335>.

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