“I told them that in that moment when we’re suicidal, we don’t want to die. We just want that pain to go away,” said Bryant, of Charlotte, N.C. “We also are thinking no one cares and no one understands. So I said, ‘If we put these signs up, we can save a life.’ ”
Between March 2015 and this past March, police records show six people ended their lives at Center City Green Parking Deck in downtown Charlotte. The garage recently worked with Bryant to hang six suicide-prevention signs in spots that would be visible to someone who came up the stairs or the elevator, Bryant said, and they printed four extras in case someone tears down the originals.
“You’re NOT alone,” the signs read. “Need help?” The displays — green, for mental health awareness — list the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention hotline. The language came from a wristband that Bryant wears every day as a reminder of her commitment to helping save others.
J.T. Davis, operations manager for Center City Green, on Wednesday declined to comment on the initiative.
The signs at Center City are part of a sweeping suicide prevention effort that Bryant is spearheading in her city. As suicide rates rise throughout the country, Bryant is hoping her initiative will deter some people from contributing to the grim statistics.
Four parking decks in Charlotte have so far agreed to hang the signs, Bryant said, and she’s working with other garage owners to try to expand the project. Bryant said Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is the county seat, is an apt location to start her initiative because it has more child suicides than any other county in North Carolina.
Some parking garage managers quickly agree to participate in the project, Bryant said, while others worry that signs discouraging suicide might prompt someone to end their life. (Studies have shown that talking about suicide does not cause suicide.) Occasionally, a manager will hesitate to pay for the signs. Prices vary depending on the printing company the garage uses, but Bryant said one parking deck paid $6.50 per sign.
Bryant recently walked to the top of a new, 14-story parking garage near Bank of America Stadium — home to the Carolina Panthers — and showed employees from the company Lincoln Harris where she wanted her signs posted. She said she settled on putting 12 signs in spots that include stairwell landings so that people might read “Need help?” and think, “You know what? I do.”
The suicide-prevention signs immediately interested Lincoln Harris when Bryant reached out to the company a few months ago, said David Oddo, a senior vice president. He said they had not thought much about the prevalence of suicides at parking garages and were surprised to learn the extent of the problem.
“I think Ms. Bryant’s campaign is very compelling and eye-opening,” Oddo said.
Bryant said she knows some people might criticize her signs as addressing only a problem’s symptoms and not its root causes, but she said prevention efforts have to start somewhere.
“I would tell someone who would say that, that it’s a start,” Bryant said. “And I would ask them, ‘If that’s a Band-Aid, how are you going to help us?’ ”
Before Bryant was a volunteer for mental health initiatives, she said she experienced her own mental crisis. When she was 35 in 1995, she said her bad days worsened until she started withdrawing from other people and feeling worthless. She didn’t know she had depression then, but she felt that she could not keep living.
Bryant said she cleaned her apartment for the sake of whoever found her, and she cryptically told an aunt that she could have all of her shoes. Her aunt knew this was a warning sign, Bryant said, and got her niece involuntarily committed to inpatient mental health treatment.
When Bryant felt more stable, her mom surprised her by revealing that depression ran in their family. Bryant said she since has learned that getting mental health treatment is often considered taboo in African American circles like the one in which she grew up. People in black communities will openly discuss diabetes or high blood pressure, Bryant said, but often hesitate to discuss mental illness.
“We’ve always been taught it’s a sign of weakness — ‘That’s a white person thing. We’re stronger than that,’ ” Bryant said. “But that’s not true, because an African American dies by suicide every four and a half hours.”
African Americans have historically considered depression to be a sign of spiritual weakness and suicide to be a sin, said Victor Armstrong, vice president of behavioral health at Atrium Health in Charlotte. He said black people are often taught that what happens in the home should stay in the home, and some are skeptical of the medical community because of historical malpractice against them, such as the Tuskegee Experiment.
Although African Americans are 20 percent more likely than the general population to report psychological distress, Armstrong said, they are much less likely to initiate treatment. Often, he said, black people who initiate treatment end it prematurely. They also disproportionately turn to their faith or their church communities as their sole source of support, Armstrong said.
“We’ve been taught that African Americans are supposed to be more resilient,” Armstrong said. “Like, ‘We survived slavery, we can survive anything.’ ”
Armstrong said he is glad that Bryant, a black woman, speaks freely about experiencing a mental health crisis and getting help. He said her parking-garage signs may make someone who is suicidal hesitate and ask for help, which in turn gives professionals an opportunity to address the root causes of that person’s despair.
“There are some people that you would not be able to talk off a ledge," Armstrong said. But “if someone is on a parking deck and they’re thinking about taking their life, that sign may be the thing to cause them to stop ... and maybe reach out for help.”
Bryant is throwing her energy into trying to help people who feel the same despair she felt years ago. She sits on the board of the North Carolina chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She’s looking for a job training companies in suicide prevention.
In between all of that, she’s trying to make her parking-garage signs go national.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.