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Committed to saving Black millennial men

By Elizabeth Exline

Some moments crystalize everything in life. For Wyona Eaton that moment came in 2019 when she went to the hospital in downtown Charlotte. She was there to take her 26-year-old son, Kevin, home after he’d been admitted for a wrist injury. But instead of reuniting with Kevin, she learned that the hospital was transferring him to a psychiatric facility for evaluation and monitoring.

“My mom had had mental health issues,” Eaton recalls. “And I had worked in mental health. … [But none of that] factored in when I found myself standing in the hallway as the orderlies and security carted off my child. I was standing in the hall by myself. I didn’t have any resources.”

This was when the seed was planted for Mothers of African American Male Millennials, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing everything Eaton lacked in that lonely hallway; namely, support and resources for women whose Black millennial sons attempt suicide.

Given the statistics, there’s a need. According to a 2022 report by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), suicide rates in Black men ages 10 to 19 have risen by 60% over the past 20 years, which is faster than in any other racial or ethnic group.

“Our mission is to break the stigma of suicide in the African American community,” Eaton says.

Education by experience

Mothers of African American Male Millennials is in its nascent stages, but Eaton, who also has a full-time job, has big plans. She’d like to offer peer-to-peer counseling and group support to affected mothers. She’d also like to build a crisis team that can meet mothers where they are both emotionally and physically by coming to them in the hospital or wherever they find themselves when their sons are in distress.

Eaton has a long way to go to achieve this, but she is committed to this work — and she has the background to set her up for success.

Eaton graduated high school and started at a local community college in 1988 but postponed higher education when she became pregnant with her son, Devan, that first semester.

She promised herself she’d go back when her children graduated high school. So, she worked; she had her second son, Kevin, three years after Devan; and she moved to Ohio. Eventually, she returned to North Carolina, where she made good on her promise and enrolled in an associate program in psychology (which has since been retired) at University of Phoenix (UOPX). She’d hated high school, but she found college was a different beast — and one she loved.

She also loved learning about psychology. Her childhood brush with mental illness via her mother gave her a familiarity with it that blossomed into a passion for learning more. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in human services in 2016 (the program has since been retired), and then earned her master’s degree at another university.

While Eaton was checking all the boxes on her bucket list, however, Kevin suffered a setback. He’d enrolled in college but withdrew due to a health problem during his first semester. While he was able to resolve his medical concern, he wasn’t able to afford a return to college. This is when Eaton observed his emotional decline. Over the following eight months, she says, he grew depressed and withdrawn.

One night, he had an argument with his then girlfriend. Things grew heated and, Eaton says, “out of anger, he just stabbed himself. … He couldn’t stop the bleeding.”

Kevin ended up in the hospital, where he was patched up and asked if he’d ever had thoughts of self-harm before. When he admitted he had, he was taken to a psychiatric facility — and that was when Eaton was left standing bereft in the hospital hallway.

Tackling the situation head-on

Eaton found community in her time of need through UOPX. Specifically, through the Charlotte alumni chapter, where she was the vice president of events.

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“I was talking to my then president and telling him my experience with my son, and he started telling me about another colleague who experienced the same thing,” Eaton says. “[My colleague’s] son died from suicide, and she and I were African American mothers.”

They were also not alone. According to a 2019 report from the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality, millennials at that time were more likely to die from suicide or drug overdose than any other generation. In fact, mortality rates for 25- to 34-year-olds rose more than 20% between 2008 and 2016.

For Black men, the statistics are even more dire. In addition to the rapidly rising suicide

rate cited earlier, the Black population faces a unique set of challenges. According to AACAP, these are:

  • Community violence
  • Socioeconomic stress
  • Interpersonal and family conflict
  • Stigma

For Eaton’s part, the “what now” mattered more than the “why.” Problem-solving is in her DNA as a mother, and this is a problem that she has a vested interest in solving. Here, she shares what she’s learned from her experience and what drives her to do more to change the narrative about suicide in the Black community.

What drove you to turn tragedy into something that could help others?

My experience was one of those things that was like, “OK, you have this knowledge. You should share it. There are people who could use that knowledge.”

What unique challenges exist within the Black community around the issue of suicide?

Mental health, period, is a challenge. If we could just talk about that the same way we talk about physical health, it would be better. You take care of your physical health, you should take care of your mental health too.

[In the Black community] that conversation usually goes like, “No, I’ll just go to church. I’ll be all right.” It’s kind of taboo within the church.

I’m able to step out of the church environment and offer help. I don’t feel any restraints or barriers. I’ve always stayed pretty true to myself, and I think because I have that, then I can present it and be comfortable talking about it.

What do you wish more people knew about suicide prevention?

The keyword in that is prevention. It can be prevented if you have the right tools.

How do you think community can help change this narrative?

I think the [Black] community should create space for it. I don’t know if there’s enough space for this specific group [of Black millennial men]. And I think the community should embrace this group as they are.

If you could share just one message with at-risk millennials, what would it be?

Talk. Find someone safe to talk with, like your mother, because your mother is there for you. Our babies, we’d do anything for them.

If you have thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please call 988 to reach the 24-hour Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

 

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