The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More African American kids are dying by suicide. This Emmy-winning producer is trying to change that

Nikki Webber Allen, the founder of a non-profit that works to raise awareness of mental health issues (anxiety and depression in particular) among people of color. (Photo by Mary Hui/TWP)

Nikki Webber Allen remembers watching videos of rapper Logic’s performing his hit song “1-800-273-8255” at the MTV Video Music Awards this August.

“You don’t gotta die, I want you to be alive,” he rapped on stage.

After his performance aired that Sunday, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — the number featured in the song’s title — spiked by about 50 percent.

Watching Logic, Allen said, made her wonder how she could similarly bring suicide and mental health issues to the mainstream.

And watching Logic, she added, also reminded her of her nephew, Paul: smart, talented, compassionate, progressive.

But Paul never got to hear the song. He died by suicide in 2013.

A silent stigma steeped in history

Allen is the founder and president of I Live For, a nonprofit established last June that works to end the stigma around depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders in teenagers and young adults of color.

Between 1993 and 2012, suicide among African American children across the United States nearly doubled, according to a study published in 2015. The steep rise among black children aged 5 to 11, from 1.36 to 2.54 per million children, even as it declined for white children, came as a shock to researchers.

While suicide rates for blacks are among the lowest in the nation when compared with whites, American Indians, Asians and Pacific Islanders, suicide is the third leading cause of death for young black men ages 10 to 24, according to 2014 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet blacks are about half as likely as their white counterparts to get mental health care, according to a study published last year.

Teenage suicide is extremely difficult to predict. That’s why some experts are turning to machines for help.

For Allen, who is African American, these numbers illuminate the very problem she wants to address: the silent stigma around mental health issues in communities of color.

“Because of our history of slavery and Jim Crow…we’ve had to be incredibly resilient in order to survive in a system that’s been designed for us to fail,” said Allen. In the black community, she said, depression and anxiety are largely seen not as treatable medical disorders, but rather weaknesses, something to be dealt with silently and in shame, or ignored altogether.

“Black people, we’re used to being oppressed and silent from the time that we were brought over here…to civil rights and Jim Crow, to today with police brutality,” Allen said. “It’s kind of embedded in our DNA and our way of thinking” to endure burdens silently “because we have a history of trauma and being stripped of our name and our identity.”

Allen knows she has a difficult battle to fight against the tides of history and deep-rooted culture that continue to prevent mental health issues from being discussed openly. But she has a strategy to confront the stigma head on: by giving voice to those who would otherwise suffer silently, and providing a platform for people to share their stories of struggle and recuperation. She has a documentary in the works and in the spring will start a podcast. She is also building a digital archive of stories from people of color who have struggled with depression and anxiety. A TED Talk she gave in June about her personal struggle now has over a million views.

“It’s not that people don’t want to talk about this,” she said. “The issue is they want to talk about it in a safe space.”

A personal struggle 

A D.C. native who grew up in the city’s northwest neighborhood of Shepherd Park, Allen remembers being surrounded by high achievers. Her street was affectionately known as “Judge’s Row,” so called for the cluster of black judges who lived there, including her father, Paul R. Webber III. Up and down the block, there were doctors, Congress members, high-flying business people.

“In my community, excellence was the norm,” Allen said. “So in my mind, normal was failure.”

That meant putting a tremendous amount of pressure on herself.

“Which is a good thing, but it’s a double-edged sword,” she said.

Over the years, her constant drive for achievement and perfection took a toll on her. She excelled at school, and later in her career, quickly climbing the ranks of the film and television industry. She won two Emmy Awards as a producer, and later became the vice president of talent relations and casting at TV One.

Brain hacking: the mind’s biology

But a few years ago, she found herself in a funk. She wasn’t sleeping or eating well, and had horrible anxiety.

“I felt like, oh, maybe I’ve just lost my mojo,” she said. Instead, she was diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety. She was ashamed, in shock, and in denial, and it took months before she told anyone about her diagnosis.

Then, on July 3, 2013, Allen’s world came crashing down on her. Her beloved nephew, Paul R. Webber V, age 22,  had taken his own life after years of silently struggling against depression and anxiety.

Allen and Paul had been very close, but she had no idea that he was in so much pain. And he hadn’t known about her struggles, either, because she was too ashamed to share them.

“I also felt shame in that I wasn’t there for him,” Allen said. “And it still breaks my heart that he died from something that is treatable.”

Suffering out loud: More people coming out about mental illness to fight stigma

Giving voice 

These days, Allen devotes much of her time and energy to raising awareness of mental health issues.  Drawing on her years of experience in the media industry,  Allen’s documentary, which she hopes to finish by next summer, tells the tales of individuals of color who have struggled with, and triumphed over, debilitating cases of depression and anxiety.

One of those individuals is Douglas Powell, a 31-year-old educator and poet whose struggle with depression dates back to middle school. Growing up with the Baptist church tradition, he remembers being told to “pray away” his depression.

Now, as a counselor at the Dooley School at St. Joseph’s Villa, a nonprofit private alternative education facility in Richmond, Va., Powell works daily with young kids – the majority of them of color – to counsel them through understanding and coping with depression and other mental health issues.

“They need to see success stories,” Powell said. “They need to see a face of someone who looks like them, who can tell them openly, I’ve been through what you’re going through.”

Read more:
African Americans are overcoming stigma of mental illness
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