It started with check-ins on her social media pages. Usually she hears from constituents about charged topics like taxes and health care, just as lawmakers have for years through old-fashioned mail.
But what Bonnie Watson Coleman started to see on Facebook and Twitter disturbed her: heartbreaking stories of black elementary school-age children dying of suicide.
“I kept seeing these stories about black youth committing suicide,” the New Jersey Democrat says. “I mean, young, like a 5-year-old, a 9-year-old, an 11-year-old.”
Watson Coleman told her staffers, “I can’t take this,” and decided the issue needed, at the very least, to be investigated. “Maybe I can’t fix it, but I can sure push it out as an issue.”
So just what can a congresswoman do?
Watson Coleman is teaming up with celebrities and mental health advocates like actress Taraji P. Henson, who reached out to her and appeared before Capitol Hill lawmakers this month to discuss suicide among black children and recount her own struggles with mental health.
Watson Coleman also went to Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass about creating an emergency task force. Why an emergency? She “wanted to signal the fact that we think we have a crisis, that we don’t want to create some other entity that is just going to meet every other month, and just keep on keeping on.”
The Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health will have a limited duration. Watson Coleman wants to study the issue, find outcomes, and then form a plan of action for legislation or funding.
“I’m a new appropriator, and I keep looking at my working group,” she said during the recent hearing.
“I need to look at ’em too,” said Henson. “Where’s that money?”
For many, the issue is part of a much larger and sensitive discussion that stirs up frustration. Henson, for one, became visibly emotional while testifying on the Hill, her voice cracking several times.
It’s also a matter of overcoming cultural misgivings about discussing mental health, according to Henson, who has struggled with depression and anxiety. You can’t just “pray it away.” Her statement elicited several head nods from members of the audience at the hearing.
Black mental health advocates like Watson Coleman and Henson say black communities need more dollars to afford mental health professionals who are “culturally competent.”
U.S. suicide rates have traditionally been higher among whites than blacks across all age groups, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, a journal put out by the American Medical Association. However “suicide rates increased from 1993 to 1997 and 2008 to 2012 among black children aged 5 to 11 years (from 1.36 to 2.54 per million) and decreased among white children of the same age (from 1.14 to 0.77 per million).” And between 2000 and 2015, almost 1,250 children ages 5 to 12 died by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The data doesn’t get into the causes of the racial disparity. And Watson Coleman admits that it may be difficult to pin down the exact reasons.
“We’ve all gone through something,” she said. “We’re black in America.”