What a quotation. This phrase has stuck with me since my graduate school days about five years ago. Many people produce various interpretations of what this idea could mean. Hopefully, the pieces prior to this one have provided better clarity for it.
As even I continue to reflect on what “talk context; change the person” means to me, I think about the recent incidents of suicide that have garnered national attention and sympathy. Some incidents have garnered more than other.
Last week, it was revealed that famed designer Kate Spade took her own life, and then just days later, famed chef, travel documentarian and author Anthony Bourdain did the same. As I write this, there are statistics that have emerged reporting that phone calls to the national suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255; available 24 hours and all 7 days of the week) have in fact increased by as much as 25 percent since this unfortunate news flooded the media last week.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an exceptional writer, thinker and woman of Nigerian descent has presented on the dangers of what she calls a “single story” (YouTube search: “The Danger of a Single Story,” A TED Talk). The most basic or relatable example of a single story is how stereotypes are created and perpetuated.
In a nutshell, when we are fed a literal single perspective or narrative of an experience or event, we begin to associate that narrative and its implications to every experience or event similar that follows. How is this relevant to the topic of suicide and the more general topic of community healing?
In a previous piece, I discussed the significant and perpetual problem that community interventionists often run into as generic interventions are put in place for particularly unique sets of community issues. Even the targeted interventions (interventions developed and applied to specific populations of people) generally miss the mark as the analysis from which the intervention was developed around is incorrect.
Again, if our analysis or understanding of the roots of symptoms is wrong, our approach to resolution is likely also going to be wrong, or at the very least, insubstantial; the intervention might initially yield desirable results, but such outcomes will decrease over time until a community is ultimately back to square one.
When we continue to see the same faces (i.e., Spade and Bourdain), representing a certain kind of suffering in mainstream media, we unconsciously start to assume that such symptoms must manifest for us all in the same way. We generally chalk it up to mental health issues.
We get into the very western habit of individualizing traumas versus looking around us for answers. When we individualize traumas we lose sight of the bigger (systemic) picture and continue to push time and resources toward changing the person…
Last month, another statistic was revealed — but did not make mainstream media — that suicide for young black children between the ages of 5 and 12 are twice as likely to occur compared to their white peers within the same age range.
This data was collected between the years 2001 and 2015. Due to the media latching on to the same white face to represent a phenomenon such as suicide, researchers are currently scratching their heads at this new statistic.
The article on Blavity.com, propose that these rates are likely related to “developmental issues and the possible lack if a family network, social network and cultural activities.” Other black researchers and thinkers who are unafraid to go there would call this a lack of racial socialization that is vital in buffering black children and children of color from the realities associated with existing in such an oppressive society.
What about the drastic and devastating increase in suicides, suicide attempts and suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide) in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Irma and Maria ripped through the island almost one year ago? Would we be oblivious enough to examine this phenomenon individual by individual?
People have lost their homes, whether it be due to the storm demolishing it, or due to the United States government allowing for homes that have been passed down from generation to generation to be stolen from families to be bought and resold at a higher price.
Many believe there is currently a genocide or cleansing of the island that is glaringly evident at this time, but has actually been underway for quite some time. “They want a Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans” many say.
As a black diaspora, it is critical to do our homework to understand the context, versus accepting the very surface level and broad explanations fed to us that may be true for the dominant group, but not for the rest of us.
This is a significant reason why the field of psychotherapy and mental health needs a complete overhaul in order to be more effective and advantageous to communities of color both individually and systemically.
As we attempt to heal a community as a community, we must shift our thinking to include a more holistic perspective/analysis rather than settling for the easier (more comfortable) conversation.