On Sandra and Kalief: Mental Health in the Black Community

[ February 18, 2016]

“I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.”

Many of us are familiar with Kalief Browder’s story: a young man was walking home, apprehended by police for allegedly stealing a bookbag, and remained in a combination of prison and solitary confinement at Rikers Island for 1,110 days.

Say it. One thousand, one hundred and ten days.

Without a trial.

After his release, he indicated to an interviewer that life on the outside was much more difficult than he imagined, particularly because of the paranoia he felt at every turn. This could be the day he was jumped. The people eyeing him could be talking about him behind his back. He would never reach the heights his friends reached, so they didn’t really care about him.

Kalief recalled in a The New Yorker piece, “Before I went to jail, I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and, now that I’m aware, I’m paranoid…I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.”

When he took his life on June 6, 2015, it was likely not a big surprise for those who had been observing the case. He had multiple attempts in prison and while released, and, although psychology is not great at predicting successful suicide attempts, we do know that one great predictor of suicide is past attempts.

Enter, Sandra Bland.

Listen. No one knows exactly what happened to Sandra.

The people have called for video. They got some evidence that flew in the face of theories regarding mug shot photography chronology.

Her family has blatantly denied her desire to take her own life.

Even though there may be evidence to support that she indicated passing suicidal attempts and/or ideation (ideation is thinking about it, with or without a plan).

So, here’s the rub: What IF Sandra Bland committed suicide?

If we compare Sandra and Kalief and think of the systems of Black oppression that were being reinforced by their jailing, could we blame either of them for feeling a sense of depression, paranoia, and defeat?

Although Kalief never explicitly indicated racial overtones in his interviews, we are aware of the grim statistics facing our Black (and Brown) youth and adults with regard to every step of policing, jailing, and sentencing — if you get that far.

Both Kalief and Sandra were minding their own business when approached by cops. Both were detained with knowledge of mental health problems. And both are now gone from this Earth.

We could debate ad nauseam the politics around policing for our people, but what do we do when the stress of being Black, coupled with a sense of awareness of the system and a loss of freedom, weighs so heavily upon us that we see no other exit than at our own hands?

We are afraid of “airing dirty laundry” — that is, giving people insight into the problems within our own families and lives. But in honor of Kalief and to restore the happiness he felt was robbed from him, it is critical that we begin to engage in self- and community-level healing. Confronting the anger, fear, and downright dread we feel from being Black on a daily basis requires maintenance. You get your car checked after 3,000 miles…why not your mind?

Our reticence is surely tied to being dismissed, devalued, and demonized by mental health providers in the past. But I assure you. A new crop of us are springing forth and we are ready to address the stigma and cultural sensitivities embedded within Black mental health concerns.

To Sandra and Kalief, I hope your eternal rest is providing you the peace you longed for on this Earth. And I hope we can do our part to help others who may be struggling to find their peace so your legacy is not in vain.