As I watched a game on TV during a recent trip home in a suburb
just west of Chicago, my friend's 18-year-old nephew raised his pant
leg to show me his strange jewelry: A house arrest monitoring unit
wrapped tightly around his dark ankle.
Back home in Maywood, Ill., the prison anklet is a sign of the
times. Last year, my friend's younger brother was released from a
juvenile detention center. My own 15-year-old cousin has had his
brush with crime. He has just finished physical rehabilitation after
being shot six times.
In some ways, these cycles of violence that cloud so many of our
communities have become ordinary details of daily life. But that
hasn't stopped it from affecting our collective mental health, the
black male psyche especially. Suicides are on the rise among young
Ending their own lives seems to have become a common solution for
young black men wandering through the maze of thug life, alcoholism,
and drug addiction. According to a report from the US Surgeon
General's office, suicide is the third leading cause of death for
African-American males between the ages of 15 and 24. These and
other pathologies seem to be consuming the friends and relatives
with whom I grew up.
While I don't personally know anyone who has committed suicide by
putting a gun to his head, I bear witness to a slower form of it
each time that I am home.
When I travel the 150-mile trip across a stretch of Interstate 57
surrounded by cornfields in central Illinois, I hope to be refreshed
by my visit home. I rarely am.
Instead I am greeted by the sight of greasy spoons, liquor
stores, and old elementary-school peers standing post on street
corners along Madison Street or farther north on St. Charles Road,
which has become a thoroughfare for drugs and prostitution.
Discarded liquor bottles and empty "sandwich bags" - used by drug
dealers to package their product - pepper residential streets.
The longer I am away from my lower-class roots, the more it seems
to me that young black males are committing a kind of cultural
The answers to this problem are not immediately clear. Carl Bell,
a Chicago psychiatrist, is among researchers advocating increased
research on black men and the issue of suicide.
Exhibiting a sense of frustration, rage, despair, alienation, and
fatalism are among the risk factors or warning signs of suicidal
behavior, Dr. Bell says. Other red flags include a history of
alcohol and substance abuse and impulsive or aggressive tendencies,
according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
The public health community should do more to prevent this
behavior, says Sean Joe, a University of Michigan professor who has
researched the issue of self-destructive behaviors among young black