by Karren D. Todd
Special to R3
Today, I logged on to Facebook and received tragic news. The post read that Karyn Washington, founder of For Brown Girls, had died of an apparent suicide. According to the organization’s website, “FBG was created to celebrate the beauty of dark skin while combating colorism and promoting self love.” It goes on to speak of “encouraging those struggling with accepting having a darker skin complexion to love and embrace the skin they are in” in hopes that all may take away from For Brown Girls “the universal and essential message of self love and acceptance”. Self Love. Acceptance. Suicide. It’s evident that one of these words does not belong.
The life of a young, African American woman who had dedicated her life to uplifting and encouraging other women of color had come to an abrupt and sorrowful end. With all that she had done to inspire and raise the spirits of others – who was there for her? It has been reported that this vibrant young woman may have suffered from depression as she coped with the loss of her mother. Did she hide her emotional distress from those around her or were there signs of depression that we missed?
As the Twitter world begins to weigh in on this heartbreaking story, many supporters are mothers of teenaged African American girls who were moved and motivated by the many initiatives that sprang from the heart of this young lady. These mothers are now faced with the daunting task of sharing this sad news with their daughters who had found hope through the voice of someone whose voice has been silenced by hopelessness. What will they say? How will they cope with hopelessness after this? We may never know the answers to these questions but there are questions we must raise in the wake of this devastating news: Why would a young black woman feel constrained to keep her pain and hurt secret or more universally, why is there such a stigma when addressing the issue of mental health in the Black Community?
We must have the conversations that save the lives of our young sisters and brothers. As one tweet suggested, “This shouldn’t be just a shock and awe social media moment.” And I agree. We must address the facts and remove the myths that suicide contradicts gender and/or role expectations. It is a myth that African American men are “brave and fearless” and do not battle depression. It is a myth that African American women are always strong and resilient and never crack under pressure. We must also have the conversations to remove the stigma associated with mental health treatment and any barriers to treatment. In one of my tweets, I agreed with the suggestion that today we should ask the strongest woman we know, Are you okay? One of the responses I received was that the strongest woman would probably never reply with “No I am not”. Unfortunately, she was right.
Whitney Houston had a song that said, “I was not built to break.” But what happens when you do break or essentially have a break down? We have to know that we are not infallible and we are not alone. If you are a person of faith, your answers are expected to be given through your religion. But has the Black Church failed in instances like this? Do we offer enough information and/or support in the realm of mental health? I believe that the faith community has an unquestionable responsibility in the onset of these conversations because we have also played a significant role in the silence of the spiritually and mentally wounded. We have given instructions to “pray harder” and “just have more faith” but have we deterred believers from seeking counseling or any source of professional help thinking that it would reveal a spiritual weakness or a lack of God’s power? We must do better and we must do better now. My prayers go out to the family, friends and supporters of Karyn Washington and my advice to us all is to redefine strong. The strongest person should be the one who says “I need help”.
Karren is a student at Memphis Theological Seminary and Senior Associate Pastor of New Direction Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee