† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Self-Harm and Suicide among Blacks: Redefining and Re-categorizing Behaviors
by Kimya N. Dennis, Ph.D.
Criminologist and Sociologist at www.kimyandennis.com
Editors note: CI is pleased to publish this piece by Dr. Kimya N. Dennis, who raises provocative questions about the larger implications of the criminalization of Blackness. To what extent does the tendency to criminalize overlook potential mental health issues in the Black community? To what extent does the criminalizing narrative contribute to limited data and even more limited community mental health resources?
Increased attention has been placed on race and gender disparities in mental health and race and gender disparities in suicide. Data indicates suicide rates for Blacks are among the lower rates of suicide as compared to whites and American Indian/Alaskan Native. Despite having a relatively lower rate of suicide, data trends indicate an increase in Black suicide in more recent years. This is not a new trend (also see). In addition to trends in suicide data it is important to remember rates of suicide do not need to “high” in a relative sense in order to be higher than previous years. We must understand cultural variations in socialization patterns and behaviors such as self-harm and suicide.
There is a commonly held belief in Black/African American/African diaspora cultures in the U.S.A. and around the world that such cultures are void of, and immune from, short term and more lasting mental health conditions, self-harming behaviors, and suicide. This longstanding untruth is reinforced through strict social control mechanisms including Black/African diaspora families and religious or spiritual institutions that place great emphasis on both collective identity and silence. This poses great difficulty in discussing particular health concerns, encouraging medical treatment, understanding physical and mental conditions passed from generation to generation, and accessing to medical data.
With this history and contemporary analysis in mind, a great deal of research and community outreach are invested in combating such discrepancies. There is an attempted balance between challenging persistent myths across cultures while also respecting cultures. Cultural respect and cultural awareness shape social understanding and social interactions. Rather than the behaviors of particular groups being instantly presumed or labeled “problematic” there is a need to redefine and re-categorize particular behaviors. This framework is furthered by sociologist Dr. Nancy A. Heitzeg’s “double-standards of deviance/social control” (Criminal Injustice, 2012 and Contemporary Justice Review 2015)). Such double standards are illustrated in how the behaviors of Blacks tend to be considered “criminal” while the same or similar behaviors from whites are often considered in need of empathy or a mental health condition in need of treatment. This racial dichotomy in which Blacks are criminalized and whites are medicalized contributes to disproportionately higher arrest rates and incarceration rates for Blacks.
It is arguably the case that the tendency to criminalize Blacks and medicalize whites can also be one explanation for incomplete data and the presumed dispensability of institutional-and-community-based resources to address Black self-harm and Black suicide. For instance, there is potential for historically and contemporarily lower suicide rates of Blacks as compared to whites to reflect nonexistent or inaccurate mortality records across jurisdictions and across generations. With proper redefining and re-categorizing of certain behaviors it might be discovered that some Blacks intentionally engage in harmful behaviors and intentionally go into harmful or criminogenic environments for the purpose of being harmed, critically injured, or killed. Such motivation, intent, and desired outcome should be considered “self-harming” or “suicidal” rather than “criminal.” Incorporating this approach to certain violent altercations between law enforcement and Blacks can further illustrate “suicide by cop” and can greater emphasize the need for “community policing” efforts and Crisis Intervention Team Training for law enforcement. Such changes can improve police-community relationships, and offer another way for law enforcement to handle aggressiveness initiated by community members, while still protecting officer safety.
Other forms of violence that can potentially be redefined and re-categorized are certain street violence, certain gang violence, certain domestic violence, and forms of addiction and substance abuse. There are a number of instances of self-injury and injury by other people that are traditionally considered “accidental” or “criminal” rather than intentional self-harm or suicidal. Reclassifying and re-categorizing some behaviors is not an easy task. It is complex and requires extensive data analyses. It can also prove beneficial for mental health outreach, suicide outreach, law enforcement training, and legal and criminal justice reform. But, first, we need to challenge the notion that the majority of deviant or illegal behaviors on the part of Blacks—and social disorganization in predominantly Black institutions and communities—are criminally motivated and a result of criminogenic environments.
Kimya N. Dennis is a criminologist and sociologist with interdisciplinary research and community work dealing with suicide and self-harm, mental health, and reproductive rights and the childfree. Her research and community work address a range of communities with particular emphasis on underserviced communities.
Kimya participates in presentations and panels on community violence, mental health, suicide and self-harm, expanding definitions of gender and gender equality, and racial and ethnic dynamics. Originally from Richmond, VA she collaborates with community activists and researchers in New York, Virginia, and North Carolina.
As Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Criminal Studies in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Studies at Salem College, Kimya is the faculty adviser and co-planner for the Salem College Out of the Darkness Campus Walk, and serves on:
- Board of Directors, LEAD Girls of NC
- Board of Directors, NC Chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Board of Directors, The Mental Health Association in Forsyth County
- NC Chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s first ever LGBTQ “Research to Real Life” Suicide Prevention Conference on Monday, August 15, 2016 in Asheville, NC.
For more information:
- The Complexities of Black Youth Suicide
- Debunking Myths about Mental Illness among Blacks
- Cultural Variations in Healing: Mental Health Outreach
- Why Are So Many Black Kids Dying from Suicide?