A 7-Year-Old's Suicide and Why We Rely Too Much on Preachers
suicide of a 7-year-old boy in Detroit has left the city reeling in shock and many others looking desperately for answers.
And while the death has turned more attention toward the problem of bullying among young kids—the boy was apparently depressed over being teased for being the only boy in a house with eight females, as well as over his parents' separation—I wonder not only about the factors that drove this boy to kill himself, but also about some of the steps taken to help this child.
According to reports, his mother knew the boy was depressed and, to help her baby cope, put him into counseling sessions…with a church pastor. Obviously, that didn't help as much as hoped. Sadly, I'm not surprised.
Now, please understand that I'm not blaming this child's death on any of those who tried to intervene, not the pastor who talked with him and most certainly not his mom.
This woman clearly was stepping up to take what she thought was the best course of action. And who knows? Maybe, like many Detroiters, she couldn't afford to send the boy to a licensed child psychologist or therapist. Maybe the pastor was her best bet. Certainly, local governments--with their deep cuts to mental-health care over the past several years--haven't made it any easier for those in Michigan and its cities to seek long-term, quality mental health care.
That said, I still can't help but wonder—if this child had received a more professional grade of psychological help (instead of having someone quote Bible verses at him); if his school or community had had an adequate number of therapists and institutions dedicated to fortifying our kids' emotional and mental health—whether that poor baby might have had a better chance to have made it through.
Moreover, I wonder similarly about the rest of us.
We all know that Detroit is a hyper-religious town. People here have a tendency to think their gods almighty and the men and women who claim to serve them vested with some divine authority and supernatural power. (For instance, there are people who actually believe Marvin Winans when he suggests that he ran off his attackers in his recent robbery and carjacking by calling on "the name of Jesus" two times. That the thieves had already gotten his watch, wallet, pants and SUV seem to be beside the point. It was a miracle!)
That hard-headed faith is a big reason why we turn disproportionately to preachers in public life. We pick them to lead our civic organizations and help run our city councils. We choose them to helm our business efforts and community programs. We choose them to lead our grassroots protests, our after-school programs and our anti-poverty efforts. We elect them to our school boards and corporate boards alike. And far too often, they fail to justify any of this faith.
It'd be one thing if we were picking some of these people because of their expertise in municipal administration or business or education. I mean, if I'm sick and the best MD in town happens to also head a mega-church, I'd still probably want him to examine me—but because of his medical learning, not his religious leanings.
But many of us turn to these people, really, because we think the gods have endowed them with some special ability to fix what's broken. We turn to them because we think they are possessed of a moral fiber far beyond that of mortal men. We think that, because they read from some dusty-ass tomes written centuries before people understood germs, the mechanics of pregnancy or the notion of heliocentrism, these preachers automatically have some special insight into the workings of the world and government and emotionally fragile human beings.
But the hard truth is, they don't. Too often, Detroit has not only been poorly served but outright undermined by assigning religious "authorities" the duties that need to be carried about by professionals grounded in a real-world understanding of our circumstances. Too often, we've watched the preachers become as big a part of the problem as some of the venal politicians they climb into bed with.
I'm not saying religious folk don't have the same place in the public square as the secular among us, just as I'm not saying a pastor can't have kind words, good advice and a hug for a hurting child. Both, to me, are the province of any caring, engaged adult. (And yes, I know that some ministers have indeed taken courses on counseling and psychology.) But to assume that the man who sits in your pulpit is equipped to do any task placed before him—whether it's addressing deep mental troubles or balancing a school district budget—simply because of his place in your pulpit is dangerous and misguided.
Faith healing is sham, whether it's exercised on the physical body or the body politic, and Detroiters would be better off leaving it be.
Like the city itself, adults and children who struggle with deep and abiding issues need real-world solutions not some moldy gospel. As someone who himself deals with depression, I think the evidence shows that the best path to getting better lies in turning to those who've dedicated themselves to an ordered, proven and scientific approach to the problems. Such a delicate and critically important task shouldn't be outsourced to someone whose best credential is that he knows the 23rd Psalm by heart.
As shocking as the child's death is, his tragic passing should be a reminder that depression is very real, even among the youngest among us. The poverty and violence that besets many neighborhoods only exacerbate those problems.
When it comes to mental health, and many of the other problems we face both as a collective and as individuals, it's past time for more Detroiters to get real. African-Americans especially still struggle with accepting that mental and emotional disorders abound in our families and neighborhoods. Too many of us still stigmatize the problems, still chalk them up to "demons" (literal and figurative) or to someone just being "plain old crazy." And we still think that, like Winans on the ground at that gas station, we can chase the dangers away with prayers and other cargo cult rituals.
But as is the case for the city as whole, what's really needs is more investment—in mental-health programs, in more school counselors, in conflict resolution efforts that center on cognitive behavioral issues and on fortifying our coping and interpersonal skills.
Detroiters of all stripes know that the city and the people who live here are in fights for their lives. That's why we need to ground ourselves in reason, research and reality.
And that's also why we need to eschew the supernatural and accept that, when it comes to our city, our kids and our collective well-being, we alone will be our saviors.