Mental health among Black Chicagoans a concern as suicide numbers rise

Sleeping a lot. Binge eating. Feeling alone.

Casey, 32, knew these were signs in the spring that she was depressed. The Chicago resident didn’t want to be identified by her full name while speaking about mental health challenges.

She’s an extrovert, and when Illinois shut down, she said, it was hard not to be able to see friends. With an underlying health condition, she felt a lot of fear when COVID-19 arrived in Chicago. Her job isn’t one she can do remotely, but she needed to be home with her children, ages 7 and 8, and help with remote learning, creating extra stress. And after all of this, she felt more pain watching the George Floyd protests and seeing, she said, how Black people like her were treated.

“That created a lot of depression and a lot of anxiety,” she said. “I would definitely have those crying spells like, hey, I just need somebody to hug me. Because of COVID, there was nobody available.”

Casey is not alone. Many are feeling extra and unusual stressors during this time, and people of color shoulder additional burdens.

Mental health experts are concerned that the stress and isolation created by the COVID-19 pandemic is adding mental health challenges.

On Monday, the Illinois Senate Human Services and Public Health committees held a joint hearing on behavioral health and disparities in care for both addiction and mental health disorders. Recommendations included supporting telehealth, which improves accessibility, having more providers of color and having better community access to mental health services.

“Lack of access to treatment is harming Black communities, which often face more behavioral and mental health issues,” said state Sen. Mattie Hunter.

This year, many Americans have reported feeling anxious and depressed. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows nearly half of Americans reported at least one mental or behavioral health condition, including a trauma- and stressor-related disorder or substance use.

In Illinois, health officials are monitoring the number of suicides. Overall, the number in Illinois actually fell slightly, from 678 suicides from January to June last year to 649 in the same time period this year.

But among Black Chicagoans, suicides have risen.

Last year, from January to June, Cook County saw 31 suicides among Black residents, which was actually down from 38 in the same time period the year before. But this year, from January to June, 51 Black residents in Cook County died by suicide, according to Illinois Department of Public Health statistics. Earlier this year, the Sun-Times reported that the majority of Black suicides in Cook County occurred in Chicago, often in the South and West side neighborhoods.

“Being in a situation where you don’t have a routine or you’re having to be quarantined and at home, that has impacted a lot of people,” said Brittney Owens, director of clinical therapy at Clarity Clinic in the Loop. “People have actually been more likely to use alcohol and different substances as a way of coping. People who didn’t previously feel like they had any type of substance abuse issues are now reporting feeling like they are depending on that.”

Owens considers the pandemic and concerns about police brutality as two public health crises.

For Casey, seeing the protests and people’s responses hurt.

“We have a lot of people that don’t really understand what we as Black people have experienced in life,” she said. “They just don’t know our struggles.”

In Chicago, mental health issues among people of color have been such a focus this year that in August, the Chicago Department of Public Health noted these needs and released a request for proposals that will award more than $6.5 million in grants to community-based mental health providers.

“We’ve definitely seen a rise in people who are reporting suicidal behaviors,” Owens said. People are experiencing anxiety about employment and the future, both about their own lives and the world. A client who lost a job, for example, felt concerned about how racial bias could contribute to her ability to land a new one, she said.

“When you add in the economic factors, you add in the health care disparities, everything that’s going on in the world, including with the social justice or injustice, there’s just a combination of unfortunate emotions and triggers and feelings of helplessness,” she said.

Many of her clients express angst about not being able to see their family, or worry about when a potential vaccine might arrive.

“There’s certain things in our life that we like to control and feel like we have control over,” Owens said. “2020 has taught us we don’t have control over tomorrow. I think that has been the biggest thing that I’ve heard day in and day out: ‘I don’t even know how to plan for tomorrow.’”

Some might be hesitant to reach out for help. A stigma exists among some in the Black community about discussing mental health challenges, said Jamal Malone, chief executive officer at Ada S. McKinley Community Services. The organization offers services to Chicagoans, including a mobile unit of crisis responders on the South Side for people who have called the state’s CARES mental health crisis line at 800-345-9049.

People also mistrust professionals after years of high-profile cases in which public officials, like police officers, faced little or no punishment for actions against Black people, he added. And many have experienced implicit and explicit bias in areas such as health care.

“There’s a buildup of ...” he said, pausing as he worked to find the right word. “trauma. That’s the word we want to use here.”

Suicide is never about one single thing, said Jonathan Singer, president of the American Association of Suicidology and an associate professor of social work at Loyola University Chicago. Biological, psychological, social and cultural factors contribute.

“When you think about adult suicide, it’s overwhelmingly the final act of something that they have been thinking about for a long time,” he said.

Singer cautioned that it’s hard to extrapolate context or generalize from statistics, especially when data is hard to capture in real time. But one thing that is true is that this year has exacerbated challenges for many people of color.

“It makes it really, really hard for us to say why,” Singer said. “What I will say is I think it would be foolhardy to ignore the inequities that have been laid bare by the pandemic.”

Much help is available on a local and national level. In Chicago, the city launched a Windy City Wellness project with guided meditations and sleep support. The CDC offers many tips on taking care of mental health, and it has the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) and a crisis chat.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also offers options, including a National Helpline that is free and available 24/7 at 800-662-HELP (4357).

Think of stress slowly adding to and filling up a balloon, Singer said.

“If you’re able to text the crisis line, a little bit of the air can get released,” he said. “It’s not the whole thing — it’s just a little bit of release, and any relief can be valuable.”


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