On Black Suicide Rates in Chicago's Cook County and the Impact of Dehumanization Amid Global Crises

A recent study of suicide rates in Chicago's Cook County is a window into the mental health state of Black America over the past 11 months

A recent news story by the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that more Black residents of Chicago’s Cook County died by suicide in 2020 than in the past decade. According to the reporting, the rise in suicide cases came as a result of government officials’ failure to deliver improved measures of suicide prevention despite its previous pledge to do so.

After outlets such as the Sun-Times and The Trace published a study on the rising number of suicides by Black residents of Cook County last July, Chicago city health officials said they would seek proposals from private agencies to create and implement a suicide-prevention plan, and implement that plan by the end of 2020.

None of which happened.

A staggering 97 residents of Cook County died by suicide last year. Most of them were men. The median age range was 34. Forty percent of the deaths involved the use of guns and occurred in areas that endured high levels of violence and drug overdoses.

These suicides also occurred in areas most disproportionately affected by the initial wave of the coronavirus, which in an area like Cook County is akin to throwing sticks of dynamites into a raging fire. The people in the community were abandoned by their local government in an intense period of mental anguish. The same type of community that national Republican and center-right Democratic leaders point to when they want to admonish Black folks about our hyper-violent behavior.

But ask any of them to qualify the mental anguish inflicted on Black Americans over the past 11 months, and watch them offer radio silence. Because in America, mental anguish is something Black folks are expected to embrace as a right-of-passage of American citizenship. Something that elected officials are not obligated to fix, but something they weaponize against us when we fall short of living with the utmost righteousness.

We are nearing a full-year of pandemic lockdown and societal ills that plagued Black Americans only intensified. Job loss and houselessness grew. Opportunities decreased. Poor Black communities were ravaged by the coronavirus in ways that were unequivocal to other Americans. This was all before the fever pitch of racially-motivated violence.

The trinity of deaths involving Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd was nowhere near the only incidents of racially motivated or systemic violence against Black people in 2020. But they were the moments that were the most visible. The moments that put us at harm’s risk while protesting within the belly of the beast of a pandemic. The moments where a “Great White Awakening” was must-see TV as opposed to the syndicated reruns of Black dehumanization. 

In theory, America’s common enemy over the past eleven months should have only been COVID-19, but in order to discontinue inequitable treatment of Black Americans on account of a public health crisis, America would have had to be able to balance a duality of crises mitigation. Which would have been impossible seeing that it was unable to get a handle on one, and historically benefitted from the other.

Over the past week and a half, the Deep South became a frozen tundra with dozens of citizens dying amid inclement conditions and millions suffering power outages and loss of water for days. Deep South states have the highest populations of Black residents in the nation with the largest gaps in income equality and a plurality of incarcerated Black citizens.

Which is to say that after you peel back the layers of Jim Crow-Black Codes-segregation policies that subjugated Black folks in the South and discard persistent opportunity gaps/income inequality, and get a handle on the disproportionate impact of coronavirus and implement effective measures of police reform, you still have to contend with annual weather events that further disenfranchise Black folks in the region in ways the majority of their white neighbors never experience.

This is all enough to make Black folks wanna holler and throw up our hands as Marvin Gaye once sang about. But to American lawmakers, corporations, the healthcare industry and aloof white folks in general, all of the dilemmas of the past eleven months have been equal for everyone, as it takes way more effort to humanize the specificity of our plight in this history than it takes to just sit back and watch us do our resilience act.

But if there is any lesson to take away from the uptick in suicides in Cook County and the negligence by Chicago-area officials in doing what they said they would do to help curve a mental health crisis, it is that despite America’s persistent lack of accountability for the anguish it has inflicted on Black people and irrespective of our best efforts to remain strong, the past year has been an added anvil on the chest of Black America, and sometimes folks go to extreme measures to shake that load off.

Also because we are human, and because unattended trauma often yields deadly consequences, the 97 Black souls of Cook County who ended their lives in 2020 are proof of that age-old adage that “when America catches a cold, Black America gets pneumonia.”

And at this moment in history, “catching pneumonia” looks like being strong enough to endure four centuries of dehumanization, adding a once-in-a-generation pandemic, ignoring systemic inequity and expecting Blackness in and of itself, to be a healer.