Suicide in Color: Portrayals of African American Suicide in Ebony Magazine from 1960 to 2008
with Michael Kreiter and Jacqueline Coffey
Using Ebony magazine, a top circulating magazine for Black readers, we examined the types of content published on the topic of suicide over the last nearly fifty years (1960 to 2008). Using content analysis, we approached this study with the following questions in mind: (1) How frequently has suicide-related content been published in Ebony magazine? (2) What is the nature of the suicide-related content? (3) How has the content changed over time? Our findings demonstrate that the frequency of articles published on the topic of suicide have significantly declined since the 1970s and 1980s despite rising trends in suicidal behavior among Black people; we also found that the vast majority of the suicide-related content published was dedicated to paying homage to celebrity or high-profile suicides. Magazine portrayal of suicide in Ebony provides important cultural knowledge about Black suicide significant to larger conversations about suicide.
Keywords: African Americans, suicide, portrayal, magazines
Suicide is “blacker” than we care to admit, and we can only save our children by talking about it and taking action.
The most recent suicide completion rates suggest that White males committed approximately 70 percent of all suicides (Drapeau and McIntosh 2016). In 2016, White individuals committed 30,658 suicides, which equates to almost 84 deaths per day, compared to Black individuals who committed 2,504 suicides, a loss of just under seven African Americans per day. Until recently, the scientific community has focused efforts on studying high risk populations. Consequently, the topic of suicide remains understudied among Black populations (Jedlicka, Shin and Lee 1977; Rockett, Samora and Coben 2006; Satcher 1999; Spates 2014).
The shortage of sociocultural knowledge about suicide outcomes of Blacks, coupled with widespread perceptions that Blacks rarely participate in self harming behaviors, poses a unique set of challenges to researchers (Davidson, Potter and Ross 1999; Griffith and Bell 1989; Jedlicka et al. 1977; Kirk 2009; Lester 1998; Poussaint and Alexander 2001; Taylor-Gibbs 1997; Walker, Lester and Joe 2006). In an ethnographic study conducted among Black clergymen and their congregant members, Kevin Early and Robert Akers uncovered the widespread belief that suicide is seen as a “white thing” (Early and Akers 1993). Almost a decade later, suicidologist Alton Kirk, the author of Black Suicide: The Tragic Reality of America’s Deadliest Secret, candidly shared his beliefs on Black suicide prior to studying the topic as he states: “I felt then, as did most Black people in the community, that suicide was a ‘white thing’; Black people didn’t commit suicide” (2009:1). My research (Spates 2014) found that a belief seems to be shared among Black women. Through in-depth interviews, I find that Black women’s views of suicide is intimately connected to their perceptions of self-harm as a White thing.
Recent shifts in suicide trends are forcing researchers to reexamine previous notions about Black suicide and dismantle myths that suicide is a “White thing” (Bridge et al. 2015; Joe et al. 2009). Suicide rates among Black children ages five to eleven have surpassed those of White children for the first time in history (Bridge et al. 2015). Black teen girls also appear to be especially at risk (Joe et al. 2009). Additionally, suicide among Black individuals increased by 83 percent from 1981 to 1994 (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention 2015; Grant 2013). The trend continues as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2013) revealed that there was a 25 percent increase in suicide attempts among Black Americans between 2001 to 2013. Moreover, there has been a dramatic increase in suicide among younger Black people ages fifteen to twenty-four in recent decades, and it is now the third leading cause of death for African Americans in this age group (Drapeau and McIntosh 2016). Findings from a recent study concluded that by the age of seventeen, 4 percent of Black teen males and 7 percent of Black teen females would have attempted suicide (Joe et al. 2009). Despite these increases, suicidal
behavior is still largely seen as a “White thing” (Barnes and Bell 2003; Joe and Kaplan 2001; Rockett et al. 2006; Spates 2014).
Prominent studies that investigate portrayals of suicide in the media in the United States often make no mention of race, provide little social context about the victim, or focus mostly on aspects of suicide contagion (Gould 2001; Phillips, Lesyna, and Paight 1992; Stack 2005). For example, Kessler and colleagues (1989) examined TV networks reporting of suicide on ABC, CBS, and NBC while Steven Stack (1988) and Ira M. Wasserman (1984) used the New York Times as their primary sources of data. Examining how the media shapes perceptions of suicide is important, but we argue that the media’s “color-blind” approach to reporting suicide is, in part, responsible for lingering perceptions that suicide is a “White thing.” This study uniquely contributes to race and suicide literatures as well as to media studies by taking a closer look at how nondominant media outlets portray Black suicide.
Ebony magazine seems to be dedicating increasingly more print and digital space to covering discussions of suicide and mental illness. We undertook this research to examine the nature of suicide-related content published in Ebony magazine. Understanding portrayals of suicide in Black-centered media will help generate knowledge about suicide-related discussions in culturally specific environments. Research on cultural knowledge about Black suicide is important because the issue is often erased in larger conversations about suicide in general. Aggregate statistics are more representative of White suicide since White individuals make up the bulk of suicide victims.
In this essay, we make use of the racial cultural framework to assess a prominent Black media outlet’s portrayal of Black suicide in the United States, namely the nature of suicide-related content in Ebony magazine directed toward Black American readers from 1960 to 2008. Reviewing Ebony magazine articles over a nearly fifty-year time period allows the authors to examine the portrayal of suicide and how it has changed over time within a prominent media source. Specifically, three questions are addressed in the current study: (1) How frequently does suicide-related content appear in Ebony magazine during the time span of 1960 to 2008? (2) What is the nature of the content? (3) How does the content vary over time? Knowledge that we gained from this project provides insight into the types of suicide-related content aimed at audiences and the implications of these findings.
SUICIDE IN BLACK COMMUNITIES
Between 2001 and 2009, over a quarter of a million Americans lost their lives to suicide. This equates to a loss of nearly one person every fifteen minutes. As such, suicide in the United States is the tenth leading cause of death, resulting in twice as many deaths each year as homicide (U.S. HHS 2012). When addressing these disheartening statistics in 1999, Surgeon General David Satcher (1999) stressed the importance of developing a national strategy for suicide prevention. Later, in 2012, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin prioritized suicide prevention as an urgent issue (U.S. HHS 2012).
Because of these statistics, suicide is now deemed a national health problem. However, a closer look at suicide statistics by race reveals stark differences. In general, men of all races are
more likely to kill themselves than women (Canetto and Sakinofsky 1998; Schrijvers, Bollen and Sabbe 2012), yet women are more likely to attempt suicide. In 2013, there were nearly half a million (494,169) non-fatal suicide attempts in the United States (CDC 2013). Data indicates that there are at least twenty-five suicide attempts for every completed suicide (Drapeau and McIntosh 2016). Many more people are hospitalized, treated in ambulatory settings, or not treated at all because of nonfatal suicide attempts (Crosby and Molock 2006; Office of Statistics and Programming and Prevention 2015). Black women have historically maintained the lowest suicide completion rates of all racial and gender groups, and they hold the lowest attempt rates of all other women (Bender 2000; Rockett et al. 2006). In 2013, there were 24,266 suicide attempts by Black women compared to 182,447 attempts by White women.
Given the fact that the authors of this study bring attention to suicide-related content published in Ebony magazine from 1960- 2008, it is important to provide details on Black suicide during these time periods. Chart 1 shows the rates of suicide among African Americans by year. In 1960, there were 3.0 deaths from suicide per 100,000 African Americans. By 1970, this rate had more than doubled, to 6.2 per 100,000. As discussed later in the results, there was also a large increase in the number of Ebony articles about suicide from the 1960s to the 1970s. However, the trends in the later decades vary.
Chart 1. Suicide death rates among African Americans from 1960 to 2008 per 100,000.
Researchers have identified several sociocultural factors that increase the risk for suicidal behavior among Black populations. It is also important to note that these risk factors vary across
subgroups. For example, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (2013), victims of childhood sexual abuse, particularly Black teen girls between the ages of thirteen and seventeen,
are more susceptible to self-harm. Additionally, it appears that middle-aged Black males between twenty to thirty-four years of age are more inclined toward self-harm. In fact, the CDC (2015) estimated that approximately 44 percent of all suicides that occurred among Black males in 2014 were among Black males between the ages of twenty and thirty-four. In general, Black male suicide victims tend to be younger than their White counterparts at the time of their death (Lemon 2008; Rowell 2010). As for Black youth, poverty combined with perceived racism and discrimination is an important risk factor in suicide. Also, Black individuals that lack adequate support systems, those that are divorced or widowed, and those that reside in the South or Northeast regions of the United States appear to have increased risk factors (Suicide Prevention Resource Center 2013).
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE PROBLEM
Perceptions within scientific communities of Black people’s immunity to suicide within scientific communities have contributed to the deafening silence around the issue of Black suicide. However, conversations about Black suicide are becoming commonplace among Black Americans (Spates forthcoming). This is due, in part, to widespread coverage of Black celebrity deaths by Black media outlets. For example, on February 1, 2012, Don Cornelius, age 75, committed suicide. Cornelius, a prominent TV show host and producer most noted for his role as the founder and host of Soul Train, left behind friends, family, and many grieving fans stunned at the fact that he took his own life. Within hours of his death, dozens of blogs and articles surfaced urging African Americans to have a much-needed discussion about suicide in the Black community.
In the months that followed Cornelius’s death, news announced several other Black celebrity suicides, including Lee Thompson Young, Junior Seau, and Karyn Washington. These deaths ignited conversations in the Black community about suicide among Black people across the web. Accordingly, African Americans are speaking up about the need to discuss the “forbidden” topic of mental health and suicide (Ikpi 2012). Black media outlets such as TheRoot.com, NewsOne.com, BlackEnterprise.com, and Ebony.com have produced countless articles aimed at increasing discourse among Black Americans on the topic of suicide. In response to the suicide of Lee Thompson Young, Ebony.com published an article titled “Black Suicide: When Prayer Is Not Enough.” The author, Donald E. Grant (2013), opened the article with the claim that:
Mental health concerns are among the biggest and most dangerously tabooed topics in Black America....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?
Suicide rate increases among segments of the Black population coupled with the suicide deaths of high profile Black Americans have propelled unprecedented discourse within the Black community. Therefore, focusing on Black media’s response to the issue is more important now than ever.
While we can clearly see the connection between Black media coverage and public discourse, scholars should take a closer look at the nature of the content published on the topic of suicide aimed at Black audiences. Magazines remain an important source for those seeking culturally relevant information to be distributed to large numbers of people. According to a recent survey, over two-thirds of Americans still read magazines (Nicholas and Mateus 2016). In this study, we analyzed Ebony, the nation’s oldest and highest-circulating of any Black-focused magazine (Pratt and Pratt 1996), to examine coverage of suicide. This article asserts that understanding discussions of suicide in Black media will help generate knowledge about the particularities of suicide and perceptions of suicide among the Black population versus the aggregate information circulated in “mainstream” media that often makes no mention of culture or race, thus reinforcing suicide as a “White thing.”
THEORETICAL APPROACHES TO STUDYING SUICIDE
Emile Durkheim’s theories continue to serve as a basis for contemporary suicide studies (Durkheim 1897). Durkheim declared that social integration and social regulation were two variables that could be used to predict suicidal behavior. He argued that the degree to which an individual is regulated by a group or society impacts suicide rates. In terms of social integration, Durkheim noted that suicide is most likely to occur when a society or group is characterized with either high or low levels of integration. Thus, Durkheim’s basic premise is that inadequate or excessive amounts of social regulation or integration are powerful predictors of suicide.
Although Durkheim (1897) failed to directly apply the tenets of his theory to explain suicide rate variance by race, several studies expand his work. For example, Charles Prudhomme (1938) highlighted the importance of Black people’s reliance on their social ties and networks as an explanation for their lower rates of suicide. He concluded that Black individuals appear to utilize interpersonal ties more often than White individuals, thereby placing more of an emphasis on social integration, which contributes to their lower rates of suicide (Prudhomme 1938). Several decades later, Robert Fernquist (2004) confirmed that Black women’s use of their social ties appears to mitigate suicide risk, particularly among single mothers. Fernquist (2004) believed that an explanation of this phenomenon rested in the fact that single motherhood often requires a greater reliance on others, thus minimizing chances of social isolation.
Following Durkheim’s (1897) lead, others have confirmed that the weaker a person’s religious identity or degree of religious participation, the higher the risk for suicide (Van Poppel and Day 1996). This premise seems to be especially applicable to Black individuals, who self-identify as the most religious group in the United States (Lugo et al. 2008). Widespread evidence suggests that religious participation mitigates risk for suicide, particularly among Black people (Early 1992; Gibbs 1997; Stack 1998). Moreover, Jan Neeleman, Simon Wessely, and Glyn Lewis (1998) found that orthodox religious beliefs and higher devotion contribute to African Americans’ low levels of suicide acceptability and thus suicidal behavior. This finding is in line with other research showing that Christians who sporadically participate in religion are more likely to kill themselves than regular participants (Goldsmith et al. 2002).
A more recent body of work stemming from Durkheim’s suicide theory focuses on instances of excessive integration and regulation in contemporary society. In one study, researchers argue that excessive bouts of integration and regulation are not always as harmful as Durkheim previously thought. Instead, they claim that excessiveness may buffer suicide risk, particularly in cases where integration or regulation serve as additives to an already protective group, such as belonging to high-quality network (Abrutyn and Mueller 2016). Nicholas Recker and Matthew Moore (2016) build on Durkheim’s theoretical approach by interjecting notions of Robert Putnan’s theory of social capital which can be used to indirectly measure social integration. Using data from the Center for Disease Control, they found that counties with higher amounts of social capital had lower suicides rates (Recker and Moore 2016).
A vast body of contributions to the literature exists to highlight the uniquely complex conditions that Black women navigate in the United States (Beauboeuf-Lafontant 2007; Collins 2000, 2009; Farrington 2003; Gray-White 1999; Jones and Shorter-Gooden 2003; Krieger and Bassett 1993; Lerner 1973; St.Jean and Feagin 1998; Staples 1973). Consequently, social scientists call into question the paradoxical relationship between Black women’s social conditions and their suicidal behaviors. Literature on the Black-White paradox attempts to uncover why African Americans’ suicide rates are significantly lower than all other groups, despite their physical, mental, and social circumstances (Rockett et al. 2006). While the Black-White suicide paradox is important to address, much of this work focuses attention on interrogating the accuracy of the statistics and unpacking the extent Black suicide rates are either misclassified or underreported (Rockett, Kapusta and Coben 2014; Rockett et al. 2010).
Until recently, scholars that wrote about suicide among African Americans offered very little insight into Black people’s patterns of suicide. Davor Jedlicka, Yongsock Shinn, and Everett S. Lee (1977) argued that there are no presently existing theories to explain racial differences in suicide rates, and until recently, this finding remained true. In 2014, Y. Joel Wong, Cara S. Maffini, and Minkyeong Shin introduced the racial cultural framework to make sense of suicide-related outcomes among communities of color. The racial cultural framework added the following three elements to the study of suicide among people of color. First, it focuses on illuminating structural inequities (such as racism and discrimination). Second, it disaggregates data, particularly among of underrepresented groups, to better assess culturally relevant factors. Third, it recommends that prevention and intervention efforts should stem from the “ground up,” created in collaborations with the communities (Wong, Maffini and Shin 2014).
We find the racial cultural framework most helpful in examining portrayals of suicide in Black media outlets. Ebony magazine was founded to highlight the challenges and triumphs of Black Americans. In an article published in Ebony magazine titled, “The Ebony Story,” the publishers speak to why Ebony magazine was created:
We wanted to give Blacks a new sense of somebodiness, a new sense of self-respect. We wanted to tell them who they were and what they could do. We believed then—and we believe now—that Blacks needed positive images to fulfil their potentialities. (1995:80).
The article later goes on to discuss Ebony’s deliberate attempt to counter negative stereotypes of Blacks in the United States. The editors state:
In keeping with this Mission, Ebony began chipping away at old stereotypes and replacing them with positive Black images by highlighting the achievements of Black men and women that had heretofore been ignored by general press. So systematic had been the exclusion of Blacks from White-controlled media that many people, including—sadly enough—a fair number of Blacks had serious doubts about Blacks’ ability to perform as well as their White counterparts. (1995:82).
We extend the use of the racial cultural framework into Black media spaces to understand the nature of these portrayals. We will identify culturally relevant factors circulated for almost half of a century to others looking to examine suicide-related topics among culturally diverse media outlets. Before we discuss the methods and findings that support this framework, we offer a brief overview of media and suicide.
MEDIA ANALYSIS OF SUICIDE
According to the San Diego Supercomputer Center, U.S. media consumption is at an all-time high (U.S. HHS 2012). Experts define media as a form of mass communication that includes, but is not limited to, broadcasting, publishing, and the internet. Consequently, content (print or digital) circulated through media channels is more likely to be seen by large numbers of people now than ever before. The embedded nature of media in everyday life makes its influence similarly difficult to escape. Magazines are products of media and represent the culture in which they are produced. Previous research (Clarke 2013; Rintala and Birrell 1984; Schlenker, Caron and Halteman 1998; Seale 2003) has identified magazines as an important source for gaining a better understanding of society and individual experience. Juanne Clarke (2013:418) noted that “mass, high-circulating, magazines are significant as reflectors and reinforcers of dominant
Media Portrayal of Mental Health and Suicide
Previous research (Clarke 2013; Seale 2003) notes that magazines are a useful source of data for studying mental health-related topics. Clarke (2013) uses content analysis to examine whether portrayals of children’s mental health issues have changed between 1970-1990 and 1991-2010 periods in Chatelaine magazine. Through Clarke’s analysis, she finds that children’s mental health issues are more likely in these periods to be depicted in a pathological nature than during earlier time periods. These portrayals include increased coverage on topics of psychiatric risks, psychiatric diagnoses, and pharmaceutical interventions. In his overview of the importance of media studies in the sociology of health and illness, Clive Seale (2003) discusses the influence that mass media has on individuals when they are making decisions about their own health care as well as their perceptions of health policies. Seale conducts a meta-analysis of how mental health issues are depicted in the media. He concludes that media representations help to co-create meanings of illness and recovery (Seale 2003). In addition, Seale encourages researchers to pay attention to what is being published as well as responses from readers.
Other scholars have also turned to media sources to better understand suicidal behavior. For instance, Steven Stack, Jim Gundlach, and Jimmie Reeves (1994) examined the link between magazine subscription and youth suicide rates. Specifically, they were interested in how heavy metal subculture influences youth suicide, using subscriptions to the magazine Metal Edge as a proxy for attitudes within the community. Additional data was obtained from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics for suicide data and the U.S. Census Bureau for population data. The analysis was limited to the fifty states in 1988 due to data availability. Results indicated that stronger ties to heavy metal subculture accounted for higher rates of youth suicide (Stack et al. 1994). Such studies affirm that examining magazine content, messages, and subscribers can provide insight into viable cultural beliefs about suicide.
Analysis of magazine content can reveal cultural-specific information as well. For example, Clarke (2006) examined the portrayal of death in twenty of the high-circulating magazines available in Canada but published in either Canada or the United States. The sample consisted of sixty-three articles that included the search term “death” from the years 1991, 1996, and 2001. The common theme from Clarke's media analysis suggests that death is portrayed in magazines as something that “was, could be, or should be within our control” and ultimately is a choice (Clarke 2006:157). While this study explored death more broadly, suicide was a relevant topic. Clarke found that portrayals of suicide focused mainly on celebrity suicides or suicides that had cultural meanings associated with them. These findings suggest that portrayals of death in magazines illuminate individualism and personal choice, which are noted as societal characteristics of Canada and the United States.
These studies provide insight into how media, specifically magazines, can be utilized to examine the culture and society in which they exist. Using magazines to examine suicide is essential to inform the current research that aims to look directly at the portrayal of suicide in media. One aspect missing from previous research, however, is the way that race impacts discussions of suicide. In fact, Clarke (2006) acknowledged that in her media analysis, the magazine articles she examined ignored several factors, including race and ethnicity, gender, and income. Similarly, while Stack, Gundlach, and Reeves (1994) did control for the Black population in their analysis, there is no further discussion of race and its relation to suicide.
Media Portrayal of Black Suicide
Although it is evident that magazines are important within society, studies about the portrayal of suicide among Black individuals in magazines are limited. In fact, examinations of media sources in general within this topic are virtually nonexistent. Literature that discusses suicide within the Black community focuses instead on protective factors, support, and prevention efforts. These studies highlight the importance of recognizing the unique circumstances of African Americans to understand suicide within this community (Castle et al. 2011; Joe et al. 2014; Lincoln et al. 2012; Wong et al. 2014). Consequently, culturally specific recommendations and prevention efforts are needed to appropriately discuss and address suicide in these contexts. The racial cultural framework provides an important theoretical underpinning for scholars interested in examining portrayals of suicide outside of mainstream media outlets.
The racial cultural framework argues that an integral part of any suicide prevention and intervention efforts within communities of color should stem from understanding cultural constructs (i.e., beliefs, values, and norms) and acknowledging that social inequalities shape these constructs. While Wong Maffini, and Shin (2014) do not directly apply the tenants of the theory to media, social scientists have long established the media’s failure to depict Black Americans accurately in the mainstream media (Berger and Luckmann 1967; Collins 2000, 2009; Diawara 1993; Feagin 2014; Littlefield 2008). Hence, many of the prominent Black media outlets to date were created in response to counter commonplace stereotypical notions of blackness in the media.
Ebony provides a forum for culturally relevant information that is influential to readers. The magazine was created by John H. Johnson and first released in November 1945 (Glasrud n.d.). According to its website, Ebony is “the heart, the soul and the pulse of Black-America”; moreover, “it’s more than a magazine, it’s a movement” (Ebony 2017). J. Spencer Condie and James W. Christiansen (1977) and A. George Gitter, Steven M. O’Connell, and David Mostofsky (1972) noted that Ebony is one of the largest Black-oriented publications (Condie and Christiansen 1977; Gitter et al. 1972). It has the highest estimated readership in terms of Black-oriented magazines (Pratt and Pratt 1996), and its current readership has reached nearly 11 million (Ebony 2017). Because Ebony is a staple in Black media and press, the authors chose this
magazine as the data source for this research.
In addition to its vast readership and popularity, Ebony was also important to this research because of its target audience. Choosing a data source that was not only familiar with Black culture but also had adequate information on the subject of Black suicide was a necessity for gathering adequate data. Because Ebony caters to a Black audience, we were confident that depictions of Black suicide would be available within issues of the magazine. Other researchers also noted choosing Ebony due to its target audience (Condie and Christiansen 1977; Hirsch 1968).
A subject like Black suicide, or suicide in general, is likely portrayed differently based on the source reporting on it. Since Ebony is oriented to Black readers, the way it portrays suicide conversations is undoubtedly different than magazines that do not specifically cater to a Black audience. Similarly, since the topic of Black suicide is understudied, and because we focused on Black suicide rather than suicide in general, choosing a magazine such as Ebony was essential to gather enough data on the topic.
Last, we were interested in the depictions of Black suicide over time. Ebony has been around for nearly seventy years. Thus, we were able to collect Ebony articles related to suicide over several decades, allowing for longitudinal comparison. Other studies that utilized Ebony noted its longitudinal nature as a reason for its use as well (Condie and Christiansen 1977; Gitter et al. 1972; Hirsch 1968).
The sample was composed of selected articles from Ebony magazine, which is published on a monthly cycle. Articles were drawn from Ebony’s online public archive consisting of 575 issues spanning from November 1959 to December 2008. A search of the archives returned 142 articles containing the word “suicide.” These articles came from 95 different monthly issues, representing 16.5 percent of all archived issues. We downloaded these 95 issues and analyzed the 142 articles for content related to suicide. The articles we collected spanned from September 1961 to November 2008.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software was used to render the downloaded PDF images as text searchable. A text search of the 95 collected issues found 512 mentions of “suicide”; however, this likely underrepresented the actual number of “suicide” mentions due to the fact that some of the scans, typically of the older issues, were not high quality. Regardless, it is our opinion, based on our interpretation of the titles of articles not included in the final sample, that relatively few instances of suicide-related texts were not represented in the search results.
Each instance of “suicide” was examined in the context of its paragraph and categorized for its relevance to our project. Cases of “suicide” used as a linguistic expression, such as “economic suicide,” or suicide mentioned as a possible side effect in medical advertisements were excluded from the sample. The reduced sample consisted of 110 articles from 79 monthly issues. The sample was further restricted to only those articles with at least two mentions of suicide in the text. This process ensured that the final sample of articles had at least some attention given to suicide rather than just a momentary mention. The final sample of Ebony articles consisted of 40 articles from 37 issues, with 377 total mentions of the word “suicide.”
Because few studies exist on the topic of suicide portrayals among Black individuals, we used qualitative analysis and inductive theorizing. Our theoretical results are based on the strength of theme repetition and distinctiveness in the sample. Each article from the final sample was coded and categorized based on its content relevant to suicide, including its manifest and latent meanings. In the first phase of analysis, each researcher read, coded, and generated emergent codes independently as a form of open coding (Elo and Kyngäs 2008).
As a method to enhance the validity of our findings, the independent coding was then compiled and compared in the second phase of analysis. Articles that were coded in different categories were discussed until a consensus was reached among all the authors. Only through several independent reading and coding sessions could an intimate familiarity with the content of the articles be reached, which was a necessary prerequisite for the second phase.
In the third phase of analysis, thematic categories that shared similarities were merged. Again, this required discussion and consensus among the researchers. Nine themes emerged from
this process representing conceptual categories that were distinct from one another and were uniquely defined by their respective empirical content: examples of high-profile suicides; physical and mental health; suicide trends and prevention; advice; suicidal behavior among non-celebrities; structural causes for suicide; Black history; books and movies; and suicide researcher. Each article was then reassessed by the research team for appropriateness in its coded theme.
Of the forty articles included in the final sample, nine profiled celebrities, making celebrity profiles the most common theme. Table 1 shows the number of articles significantly referencing or specifically focused on suicide by theme and decade. Suicide-related articles were most common in the 1970s (n = 15), which had nearly double the decade with the next highest occurrence of suicide articles, the 1980s (n = 8).
Chart 2 indicates the number of suicide-related articles that Ebony published in each decade. The number of suicide-related publications peaks during the 1970s (n = 15) and is least frequent in the 1990s (n = 4). During the 2000s, the number of articles published related to suicide begins to increase again (n = 7).
Table 1. Article themes by decade, n = 40 (%).
Chart 2. Number of suicide-related articles published by Ebony in each decade, 1960s–2000s.
Each individual theme also followed this trend, except for the three least common themes, which only had two occurrences each, making any trend indiscernible. Table 2 provides a description of each theme, along with an example quote from an article categorized by the researchers as belonging to that theme. The following subsections further detail the meaning and composition of each theme. We report this data as if there are no cross-sections of categories for any articles. This is a matter of how we chose to code the data. Some articles could possibly be coded into multiple categories. For instance, most of the articles coded as “structural causes of suicide” also contained information that could be coded as “suicide trends and prevention.” We, however, chose to focus on the primary emphasis of the articles based on our collective interpretations of the content. Thus, in this essay, we analyze discrete categories of what we interpret the principal intent of each Ebony article’s author to be.
Examples of High-Profile Suicides
Nine articles from the sample were about famous individuals. Only one article, from December 1988, was about more than one celebrity. It discussed famous Black individuals who died young, while the others focused on one celebrity specifically. The articles about a specific celebrity varied in type and included interviews, biographical accounts, and a book excerpt. Interviews were with Diahann Carroll, whose husband, some suspect, committed suicide (November 1979), as well as Sammy Davis Jr. (March 1980) and Tyler Perry (October 2008), both of whom contemplated suicide. The biographical accounts included stories about the mysterious deaths of Dorothy Dandridge (March 1966, August 1999) and Donny Hathaway (April 1979), along with John Roseboro, who also contemplated suicide (January 1979). The book excerpt was from Richard Pryor’s book, in which he discussed his suicide attempt (September 1995) where he lit himself on fire.
Table 2. Description and frequency of article themes (n=40) with content related to suicide from Ebony magazine.
Physical and Mental Health
Seven of the articles referred to suicide as a possible consequence of a physical or mental health issue. The specific health issues were the main focus of these articles, and suicide was used to give the writing context. For example, an article from July 1979, highlighting how Black women have overcome obesity, described depression and thoughts of suicide as issues faced by some of these women before their weight loss. Another article, from October 2001, used extreme cases of mother-child murder-suicides to emphasize the prevalence and threat of postpartum depression. Articles from 1974, 1975, and 2000 described suicide and suicide ideation as an increasing problem caused by more people suffering from depression and related mental health issues. Two articles, from 1988 and 1998, listed several health issues faced by the Black community, both mental and physical, including suicide.
Suicide Trends and Prevention
There were seven articles that strongly featured suicide, especially recent trends and methods of prevention. All of these articles followed a similar format, whether focusing on the Black population in general (July 1965, May 1970, December 1976, March 2006), Black men (April 2001), Black women (September 1973), or Black youth (September 1981). These articles typically began with anecdotal cases of suicide ideation, prevented attempts, or successful attempts. Then the articles explored current research on the topic of suicide, mostly relying on statistics that demonstrated that suicide was increasing among African Americans. Finally, the articles concluded with advice on how and where to seek help, or how to recognize and offer help to a potential suicide victim, usually by establishing or improving interpersonal communication or referring readers to a suicide hotline.
Advice was given to readers in two of the articles through a column called “The Ebony Advisor,” where readers write in and the magazine offers researched answers. “The Ebony Advisor” advice from January 1982 was to a young man who was thinking about committing suicide, and in August 1999, suicide was mentioned as a symptom of depression by a woman who wrote in about a boyfriend. A third article, from February 1977, was written as guidance on coping with tragedy and gave general advice to those who may begin to think of death or suicide. Two other articles, also from January 1982 and February 1977, were Letters to the Editor where readers wrote in regarding a previous article about suicide and how they felt the article was helpful.
Suicidal Behavior Among Non-Celebrities
There were also suicide-related articles written about individuals who were not famous. All three of the related articles focused on one person. These individuals had either committed suicide or been affected by the suicide of someone else. For example, an October 1972 article was about an assistant principal who committed suicide. This article discussed relevant race issues at the school that impacted the man’s decision to commit suicide and how those events affected students. The other two articles were about professional men: one a prison warden (July 1969) and the other a major general in the Army (July 1985). The prison warden article discussed suicide in two contexts: the warden’s suicide and suicide as a recorded cause of mysterious deaths of inmates. The article on the major general, on the other hand, focused on a man who conducted an investigation of the death of a general, who, it turned out, committed suicide.
Structural Causes of Suicide
Three of the articles, when discussing suicide, focused mostly on its social structural causes. For example, an article from October 1971 was a personal opinion expressed by professional comedian Dick Gregory about how widespread suicide is actually genocide inflicted by an oppressive, racially stratified society. Another article from August 1972 focused on the young Black man and structural difficulties he faces, such as poverty, street gangs, and the Black-White wage gap. In the article, suicide was used as a metaphor for confrontational liberation movements. The last article was written in August 1983 and again focused on young Black men. In it, issues of masculinity, violence, and suicide are used to explain why Black women outnumber Black men.
Two articles on Black history mentioned suicide. The first article discussed the beginnings of the slave trade in North America (September 1961). Similarly, the second article discussed the slave trade in regards to its effects on Western culture and Black individuals, specifically Black men (August 1965). Both mentioned suicide in reference to Africans who attempted and committed suicide in order to avoid the fate of slavery.
Books and Movies
Two articles discussed a book or a movie plot that involved suicide. Ebony magazine has a column called the “Ebony Bookshelf” where new books are highlighted and briefly summarized. One article from this column featured the book Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African-Americans, by Dr. Alvin Poussaint and Amy Alexander, which is about the increasing suicide rates of Black youth (November 2000). The other article discussed the movie plot of The Comedians, in which one of the characters commits suicide (June 1967).
Two articles focused on the life and work of a particular suicidologist: Dr. Alvin Poussaint. One article from December 1972 was a transcribed discussion between Dr. Poussaint and Reverend Jesse Jackson about Dr. Poussaint’s work on Black self-hatred and how it has been “grossly exaggerated” based on the fact that White suicide is far more common. The second article, from June 2000, was a biographical account of Dr. Poussaint’s life, including his life as a grandfather, his consultations for The Cosby Show, and his books about suicide.
Findings from this study offer a rare look at portrayals of suicide in a prominent Black media outlet. Racial cultural framework suggests that researchers studying suicide should acknowledge the unique circumstances that communities of color face, including cultural constructs surrounding the topic. Ebony magazine serves as a cultural medium to investigate how representations of suicide in the media intersect with cultural attitudes and beliefs about suicide.
The current study sought to highlight the frequency and the nature of suicide-related materials printed in Ebony magazine across just under a fifty-year time span. We also aimed to examine the nature of this content. Our findings build on an existing body of scholarship that uses print and electronic media sources to better understand cultural perceptions about suicide as well as how magazines and other print media can be used to disseminate information about suicide (Beautrais, Horwood, and Fergusson 2004; Clarke 2006; Jonas 1992; Martin 1998; Nicholas and Mateus 2016; Stack et al. 1994).
This study expands the existing literature by focusing on the nature of suicide-related print media aimed entirely at Black audiences over an almost fifty-year period (Castle et al. 2011; Joe et al. 2014; Lincoln et al. 2012; Wong et al. 2014). Our findings reveal that just under half (45 percent) of the stories published on the topic of Black suicide highlight incidents of celebrity suicide. To illustrate, the magazine saw fit to print details on Donny Hathaway and Dorothy Dandridge’s suicides while also highlighting Mary J. Blige and Monica’s struggles with depression and suicidal ideations. Previous studies that examine the media’s impact on suicide in mainstream media suggests that suicides should receive only minimal coverage (Niederkrotenthaler et al. 2010; Stack 2003). Further, Stack (2005) finds that entertainment or political celebrity suicides are fourteen times more likely to trigger contagion or copycat suicides. Our findings cause one to call into question whether concerns of copycat suicides are warranted for media outlets aimed at mostly Black audiences. Perhaps the editors of Ebony magazine saw fit to publish stories about celebrity suicides to pay homage to key figures in the Black community. We do know that many of the celebrities’ deaths, suicide attempts, or publicly shared suicidal ideations would rarely receive coverage in mainstream media sources.
A closer look at how frequently suicide-related content appeared in Ebony magazine during the time span of 1960 to 2008 revealed suicide-related content appeared most frequently during the 1970s (38 percent) and least during the 1990s (10 percent). This is an interesting finding given the fact that suicide rates among Black Americans peaked in 1990, at a rate of 7.1 per 100,000 (CDC 2012). Meanwhile, Ebony magazine appears to be increasing its frequency of publishing suicide-related content. We see that in the 2000s, Ebony published almost as many suicide-related articles as it did in the 1980s (seven articles and eight articles, respectively). Of the suicide-related content published in the 2000s, just over fifty percent of the content aimed to educate readers about suicide trends, share prevention information, or provide advice about suicidal ideations to the Ebony audience. We speculate that the upsurge in suicide-related content in Ebony magazine is a direct response to the increasingly more common incidents of suicide among certain Black subgroups.
We found that the majority of the articles were categorized under the following three themes: suicidal behavior among celebrities, physical or mental health, and suicide trends and prevention. While the articles on celebrity suicides provided insight into the events leading up to the celebrity’s death, the majority of the articles categorized under physical and mental health appeared to be written with the intent of communicating scholarly information on suicide in layperson’s terms. For instance, in December of 1976, Camille M. Rucker published an article titled, “How to Prevent: Suicide Prevention Experts List Clues That Are Helpful in the Detection of Persons Bent on Taking Their Lives.” In this article, she offers tips on practical steps that people can take daily to prevent suicide in the Black community.
A final empirical insight gained from this study is related to mentions of race. Unlike articles on suicide printed in mainstream media outlets, nearly 100 percent of the articles printed in Ebony magazine specified that they were speaking about “Black suicide” or made mention of race in their discussion. This reveals that notions of suicide were seen to occur within a racialized space. Scholars interested in disseminating suicide prevention materials to Black Americans should consider openly acknowl edging empirically grounded socio-cultural factors related to suicidal behaviors among Black Americans. Doing so may also aid in efforts to dismantle the widespread belief that suicide is a “White thing.”
Theoretical contributions are also evident in this study. The racial cultural framework provides researchers with a “blueprint” to reduce suicide outcomes within communities of color. We expand the relevancy of Wong and colleagues’ (2014) theoretical approach to studying Black suicide using popular cultural media. The racial cultural framework encourages researchers to work directly with communities of color to gain a better understanding of how structural inequalities and cultural constructs influence suicidal behaviors. Ebony magazine provides insight into a form of nondominant culture that caters to an audience of mostly Black readers and is in fact the most circulated magazine specifically published for a Black audience (Pratt and Pratt 1996). This is most evident in our thematic results such as “structural causes of suicide” and “Black history,” both of which make specific references to suicide as a possible response to racial inequality, a connection that would most likely be ignored in dominant cultural media outlets utilizing color-blind frames. Other themes we found, such as “examples of high-profile suicides” and “suicide trends and prevention,” discuss Black suicide specifically, whereas dominant cultural outlets are more likely to ignore race in discussions of suicide.
Lastly, we would like to acknowledge a few limitations of this study. First, while Ebony magazine is an acceptable starting point, we realize that there are a number of magazines aimed at Black audiences that are worthy of a similar analysis. Secondly, the cultural dynamics highlighted in this study do not speak to the heterogeneity of the Black “community.” We found this to be the case in nearly all of the content published in Ebony magazine. Future researchers should consider this and perhaps seek out content aimed at members belonging to specific Black ethnic group audiences. In alignment with the racial cultural framework, it is important to give attention to how cultural constructs may vary by ethnic group.
Dominant culture maintains its status through cultural institutions, like the media, to naturalize the favorable values. However, popular culture represents a challenge to dominant culture because it is nonconforming and often gives voice to the marginalized (Brown 1997). For this reason, we chose to examine how a nondominant media outlet portrayed Black suicide. This approach specifically positions popular culture as a possible challenge to dominant culture. It allows for the analysis of culture representations that are nondominant while still linked to dominant culture, either through directly challenging dominant ideologies or being unknowingly influenced by them. It helps answer questions about Black suicide that quantitative analyses cannot.
The significance of this study rests in the fact that we qualitatively assess portrayals of suicide in a prominent Black media outlet over a nearly fifty-year time span. While findings reveal a significant decline in the publication frequency of suicide-related content in Ebony magazine, Ebony continues to serve as an important source of cultural knowledge about Black suicide. An imperative point to carry forward is that nearly all discussions of suicide occurred within a racialized context. For example, the editors of Ebony often discussed the social problems (i.e., discrimination, racism, poverty, etc.) plaguing Black Americans as a framework for suicide-related articles. Even among the articles classified as “suicide trends and prevention,” reports often rationalized why the information was relevant to Black Americans. This is a unique finding in that studies that discuss suicide in the media rarely speak of race or any other factors, macro or micro, surrounding media representation of suicide (Kessler et al. 1989; Stack 1988; Wasserman 1984).
Moving forward, researchers should consider where Black Americans may go to find suicide-related content and why. Recent studies suggest that nearly two-thirds of Americans get news from social media sources at least some of the time (Gottfried and Shearer 2017). Additionally, nonwhites (74 percent) are more likely to turn to social media for their news compared to their White (64 percent) counterparts (Gottfried and Shearer 2017). Conventional color-blind efforts to address suicide as a national public health issue could go unnoticed by African Americans if the call fails to mention cultural-specific information or fails to consider nontraditional media venues to disseminate information. Non-traditional sources ranging from social media (i.e., Black twitter and Facebook) and blogs (Afropunk.com, hellobeautiful.com, theroot.com, etc.) appear to provide a platform for Black Americans to discuss these issues.
Also, additional research is needed to assess how Ebony’s suicide-related content comes across to the intended audiences. A question that needs answering is whether Ebony’s decision to
focus significant amounts of attention on high profile suicides is ideal. Or do readers wish to read more about laypersons’ struggles with the issue? In a recent article published on Ebony.com titled, “Black Suicide: When Prayer Is Not Enough,” readers posted 163 comments in response to the article. Many of the posts included personal details about struggles with suicide and depression. ConfessionsLA states:
My beautiful and talented brother lost his battle with bi polar disease 13 years ago in the exact same fashion. Yesterday was an emotional day when I heard of this young man passing who was only 3 years older than my brother was when he lost his battle with this awful disease. So sad, so tragic and hopefully this will make people take a closer look at mental health diseases. Thank you for this insightful piece.
In response, Rfpatt, responds, “I understand the emotions you faced this week. My emotions were raw this week as I relived my son’s suicide that occurred in the same manner 4 months ago.” Seemingly, Ebony and other Black media outlets provide a unique space for Black audiences to read about and potentially discuss suicide. This is especially important given the fact that conversing about suicide in the Black community is largely seen as taboo.
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About the Author
Kamesha Spates, Kent State University
 Sources include but are not limited to theroot.com, madamenoire.com, essence.com, ebony.com, atlantablackstar.com, and blackamericanweb.com