Not a ‘White Thing’

Tracy Morgan Busts the Black Suicide Myth

By revealing he contemplated taking his own life in the wake of his devastating accident, the comedian is helping silence a damaging myth in the African-American community.

03.25.16 5:08 AM ET

Sixteen months after the horrific, near-fatal accident that claimed the life of of one of his closest friends, funnyman Tracy Morgan made a triumphant return to Studio 8F in Rockefeller Plaza.

Fellow comedian James “Jimmy Mack” McNair died in the multi-car pileup on a rain-soaked highway in New Jersey, and Morgan was lucky to be alive, he told the Saturday Night Live audience.

“I’m back. It feels so good to be here,” Morgan exclaimed from center stage. “You may have seen on the news I was in a terrible car accident a year ago. It was awful. But it also showed me how much love and support I have in this world.”

What he did not say as he opened the show that night—and what the audience could not have possibly known—is that after eight days in a coma and amid months in a hospital bed, Morgan suffered a debilitating mental collapse and contemplated taking his own life.

“I was in a very dark place,” Morgan told Rolling Stone. “I was sitting right here, contemplating suicide.”

His path to recovery was as much about the rigors of physical therapy as it was about making peace with himself and embracing the road ahead.

Morgan battled what is known as “survivor’s guilt.” As he spiraled into depression, trapped in a fog of grief, Morgan blamed himself for the tragic collision that killed McNair.

“Emotionally, it’s hard for me to deal with,” Morgan said. “I asked everybody to be there that night. I have to live with that. But I had to forgive myself. I know Jimmy would want it like that.”

It is not unusual for surviving accident victims to consider taking their own life. However, within the African-American community, suicide is far more prevalent today than it was just 20 years ago. Between 1993 and 2012, researchers found, suicide rates among black children doubled and, for the first time, surpassed those of their white counterparts—which dropped over the same period.

Historically, especially among African Americans, suicide and mental health conditions are often stigmatized. Despite the growing prevalence of suicide, there is a persistent myth that we do not intentionally kill ourselves and, when we fall into despair, we need only pray.

Suicide, we believe, is something white people do. It is often attributed to a “weak spirit” or someone who lacks the requisite faith in God. Those who attempt to do themselves harm are regarded simply as “cop-outs.” No “real man” would ever try to kill himself.

Suicide is all too often considered a “white thing,” one study found. Even as the numbers rise, it continues to be viewed as an “anathema to a culture noted for its resiliency in the face of racial discrimination and oppression.”

“I think that African Americans, more so than a lot of other groups, certainly more than whites, are socialized to expect that life will disappoint them,” Dr. Sherman James, a research professor of epidemiology and African-American studies at Emory University, told The Guardian.

While the researchers did not find conclusive reasons for the increase in incidences, some causes might include early onset puberty—more prevalent among black children—and exposure to violence. The rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in urban communities is said to exceed that of war veterans, in at least one study.

The most prevalent linkage, as in Morgan’s case, is trauma.

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But according to Dr. Bill Johnson, a clinical psychologist writing on BlackMentalHealthNet.com, the typical mental health markers can present themselves differently among black men. Those with substance abuse issues, as Morgan has acknowledged, suffer “higher rate of depression than some other diverse ethno-cultural groups.”

Johnson wrote that black men are “less likely to report frequent crying or sadness and more often report feeling stressed, angry or irritable.” Taken together with the reluctance to seek treatment, accurate diagnosis is often elusive.

Others tie the rise to the Black Church and its historical emphasis on prayer over treatment for mental health conditions. Dr. Donald Grant pointed to this issue specifically, writing in Ebony, “Blacks under utilize mental health services across all socio-demographic domains and are dying silently as a result.”

According to Grant, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young African-American men.

“We must understand that participation in counseling is not synonymous with weakness,” Grant wrote. “It’s clear that a very naked discussion on mental health is long overdue. Who will lead this charge in a community where these issues remain cloaked in invisibility?”

By going public with his suffering with such intimacy and candor, Morgan may be unwittingly challenging those cruel stereotypes. By opening the door on his pain, he may be providing safe harbor for others to do the same.

“Maybe when I was in heaven, Richard Pryor said something to me,” said Morgan, who is performing on his first stand-up tour since the accident. “I feel funnier than I ever felt.”