The high-profile deaths of celebrities Avicii, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have forced important conversations about mental illness. Many of those conversations focus on how people who seemingly “have it all” could feel so isolated that ending their life seemed like the only solution.
Too often, those debates fail to acknowledge the social constructions of health and wellness that promote silence and misunderstanding across various identity markers. Having access to money and privilege aren’t effective barriers to depression. At the same time, the lack of access can be a very real impediment to healing.
Last week, actor Kofi Siriboe, noted for his roles in Queen Sugar and Girls Trip, released a powerful short documentary called WTFIMH –What the F*** Is Mental Health—that explores the mental health journeys of young Black people. For Siriboe, the project is deeply personal. He’s been very candid about his own struggles with depression and the impact of losing a mentor to suicide.
What once seemed like a taboo topic that only happened to “other people” is an increasingly frequent challenge for many communities of color. According to the National Association of Mental Illness, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24. A new report released by the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that Black children are twice as likely to take their lives as White youth.
Whether more people are taking their lives or if it is becoming more socially acceptable to be open about mental health challenges is debatable. What is clear, however, is that the failure to address the stigma associated with mental illness is often compounded by racial and class-based barriers to treatment.
In March, I wrote about the politics of mental health for Diverse with a special emphasis on the challenges facing young people on college campuses. Revisiting that article amid ongoing discussions about suicide and mental health made me realize that this week also marks the three year anniversary since the death of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old New Yorker accused of stealing a backpack. Although he was never tried nor convicted of the crime, Browder spent three years on Riker’s Island because his family couldn’t afford his bail.
Browder endured years of mental and emotional torture on Riker’s after being beaten by guards and inmates and frequently being sent to solitary confinement. The American Psychological Association has long opposed the practice, noting that extreme isolation can have permanent effects that induce psychosis and promote suicidal ideations. In spite of this, over 80,000 inmates are currently held in solitary confinement.
In January 2016, former President Barack Obama announced that his administration would end solitary confinement for juvenile offenders incarcerated within the federal prison system citing decades of research on the psychological effects of solitary confinement. It was an impressive statement yet with a very limited scope and minimal impact. According to the Bureau of Prisons there were only twenty-six inmates under the age of 18 who were federally adjudicated at the time of Obama’s announcement. None of those inmates were serving their sentence in federal prisons.
Each year, more than 650,000 people are released from prison. Many are people of color who have endured the traumas of solitary confinement or the undertreatment of longstanding mental health challenges. Some permanently bear the scars of their incarceration that can have disastrous consequences for the families and communities to which they belong.
As we address what must be done to promote greater access to mental health and to overcome the stigma associated with asking for help, we do so in honor of Kalief Browder and the many young people like him who struggle to cope with the aftermath of injustice and indifference. This is a Requiem for Kalief:
This is A Requiem For Kalief. Browder. Sixteen Years Old. Accused. Never Tried. Accused. Never Convicted. Just. Accused. Of stealing a backpack. Spent 3 years in America’s deadliest prison. The Gulag. Called Rikers Island.
3000. No Andre. But Dollars. $3,000 bail. Too much for his parents to afford. $3,000 separated Kalief from bondage and freedom. From life And eventual death.
This is a Requiem For Kalief. 800 days in solitary confinement. Tortured in a 12×7 cell. 23 hours a day. 18,400 hours fighting for his soul. 5 suicide attempts.
This is a Requiem For Kalief. Sixteen. Beaten mercilessly by guards. Tortured by inmates. Bloodied, broken body captured on grainy surveillance footage. Accused. Never Tried. Accused Never Convicted.
This is a Requiem For Kalief. Sixteen. Accused Not Convicted. Incarcerated. Not Educated. Mind poisoned like the waters in Flint. Sent Home. Empty. No Resources. No Apologies. No Guidance… Just. Released.
This is a Requiem For Kalief. Took his life at home. 4 years after the state, took his soul. Accused. Never Tried. Accused Never Convicted.
This is a Requiem For Kalief Browder. For his Mother. Ms. Venida Browder. Broken Soul. Broken heart. A Requiem, For the names we may never know. But the pain that is all too familiar.
This is a Letter. To You. The Free. Don’t be Sorry. Be Resolute. Don’t just be Angry. Be Committed. Don’t just be Free. Be liberating.
For access to support and more information contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/, The Steve Fund http://www.stevefund.org/, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness https://www.nami.org/
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an Associate Professor of Political Science where she writes about American Politics, political psychology, and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.