Merlene Davis: Studies that examine black women's coping mechanisms could aid veterans in suicide prevention

Within the past year, more studies have focused on what black women think than I've seen before in my lifetime. I'm almost feeling visible.

A nationwide survey of more than 800 black women by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed earlier this year a more complex picture of us.

One surprising result of that study was that 40 percent of black women surveyed said they experienced frequent stress, compared with 51 percent of white women. I would have thought that percentage would have been higher for black women.

Although we wade through the same daily stresses of jobs, finances, family and relationships, we also have unhealthy bundles of racial and gender discrimination strapped on our backs. That should be enough to drown us in depression or lead many of us to contemplate suicide.

But it doesn't seem to do that, not in large numbers anyway. Maybe we see those stressors as a part of life.

Black women have the lowest suicide rates of any group in the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 2005-2009, the suicide rate for white men was 26 per 100,000. For black women it was less than 3 per 100,000.

Why is that? A study conducted at the University of Kentucky just may give us a clue.

The study, "Too Much of a Good Thing? Psychosocial Resources, Gendered Racism, and Suicidal Ideation among Low Socioeconomic Status African American Women," examines the relationship between the additional discrimination black women face and our coping skills.

The co-authors of the study — which is published in the current (December) issue of Social Psychology Quarterly — include assistant professor Brea L. Perry, associate professor Carrie B. Oser, and PhD candidate Erin L. Pullen, all of the UK Department of Sociology.

They found that women who have experienced chronic race and gender-based discrimination have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and actions.

Studies of white men and women found that increasing self-esteem and sense of purpose worked to decrease those suicidal risk factors. In black women, however, the study found having higher or lower levels of self-esteem, sense of purpose in life, or the ability to actively change a situation, was not necessarily a good thing. That finding was unexpected.

"Moderate levels were most protective," Perry said. "What is very beneficial is being flexible."

In other words, black women who maintained an even keel were less susceptible to suicidal thoughts. In some cases, what appears to be high self-esteem is really a facade, Perry said. It can cave in or shatter when extra pressure is applied. On the other hand, added pressure on low self-esteem will only lead to a deeper sense of unworthiness.

Being balanced, middle of the road, or laid back protects black women from suicidal tendencies, the study found.

Other studies have indicated that moderation may be due to the spiritual life of black women, their interaction with supportive family members or social networks and other coping strategies.

At any rate, the Department of Veterans Affairs is examining that support system of black women to address the increased number of suicides occurring in the Armed Forces. The hope is that culture of support can be taught to and used by troops to prevent military suicides.

"They have great coping mechanisms," Perry said of black women. "It's a legacy that dates back to slavery."

The UK study used data collected as part of the Black Women in the Study of Epidemics (B-WISE) project. That larger project surveyed 643 black women in Kentucky who were in state prisons, on parole or community residents, Oser said, mainly trying to gauge how drug use and criminality are related to health disparities.

From that data base, 204 predominantly low-income black women from the community group were interviewed for the suicide risk study.

Unfortunately, some of the support system for black women is falling away, resulting in an increase in the rate of attempted suicides. About 17 percent of the sample had attempted suicide, Perry said.

Even those considered to be strong black women need mental health assistance sometimes.

"African-American women have high rates of poverty," Perry said. "It's a triple whammy: they are African-American, women and living in poverty. African-American women have low rates of psychological disorders, but they have a high rate of psychological distress."

One thing is for sure, she said. More research is needed, especially research of specific groups.

"What is really important and novel is that (this study) demonstrates it is important when measuring stress and stress research to take into account what African-American men and women are experiencing," Perry said.

That way, we won't feel overlooked or undervalued and we just might be able to help others cope.