Granny Therapists for Suicide Prevention in Black Youth

Written by: Dr. Edith Langford

Author, Ethnographic Researcher & Clinician, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC, LMHC), and Addiction Specialist (CASAC, ADC) with four decades of experience. After a lifetime of experiencing ongoing medical mistreatment, she is working on a memoir about medical racism in our healthcare system

.   Crisis and Care: The Rising Suicide Rates Among Black Youth

Suicide is the leading cause of death for African Americans between the ages of 10 and 24 (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2021). The youngest Black male suicide attempt I recall was in 1983. A nine-year-old named C.J. lived in my building and knocked on my door at 8:00 PM. His mom was working late, and he was alone. He stood there with a steak knife sticking out of his chest. Yes, I panicked for a moment, but I had been trained to handle such crises. I knew not to pull the knife out, as it could have caused him to bleed out. He appeared dazed and disoriented, clearly unaware of where he was or what he was doing. I didn't ask any questions, and we didn't speak. He had come to me for help, and I needed to give him my best at that moment.

Back then, and still sometimes now, 911 response was slow in low-income areas. I called the fastest Black cab service in Brooklyn, Black Pearl, and explained the situation. They arrived within two minutes. We went downstairs, and our Caribbean driver raced us to Methodist Hospital in Park Slope. "Sista, I'll pay my own ticket for this one, but the cops will have to chase me all the way to the ER," he assured me.

In the ER, the doctors told me that I made the right choice by not removing the knife, as C.J. could have bled out. They stitched him up and did not refer him to counseling. I was relieved that they hadn't, knowing that he would have likely been heavily medicated and placed in a long-term mental health facility. Today, he is a master's-level English instructor and a community advocate, helping young people in every way possible. He and his confused, young mother became my family for the next 40 years.

Since that incident 40 years ago, how many C.J.'s have I treated? Thousands. Sometimes, I saw up to 50 clients per week. Like my mentors before me, I often sought out troubled young Black kids to prevent them from falling into the hands of a social worker or therapist who would be quick to reach the wrong conclusions about their families and separate them prematurely. Such separations often led to each family member's downfall. Fortunately, I had strong mentorship. I learned to recognize my limits and shifted my focus periodically. Sometimes, I stopped working with children for several years to work with adults. Men and women dealing with drug addiction, couples striving to stay together, and parents needing support to be better caregivers for their own C.J.'s.


The Desperate Need for "Granny Therapists"

My children are killing themselves. Today's suicide rates for boys and girls of color have only increased. The question isn't why they are taking their own lives, but why life is so challenging as a child that they see no other solution.

Where are the "Granny Therapists"? I believe my Granny Eiland, a midwife, was also a psychotherapist, particularly for the women she assisted in childbirth. I’ve heard many stories that these women shared their deepest secrets with her. She would help resolve problems with other children or in the marriage, providing mediation and making referrals. There were no therapists at that time, especially not for Black people. The granny midwife was the only impartial person in the community who moved between homes and institutions with the freedom to help.

Where are those much-needed services? Black potential clients call me weekly, begging me to take their case. I’ve trained many Black therapists over the years, but the demand remains overwhelming.


Friendship Bench: A Model for America?

The Friendship Bench in Harare, Zimbabwe offers a compelling model that might just answer our call for "Granny Therapists." This program trains grandmothers in the community to provide basic cognitive behavioral therapy focused on problem-solving therapy, activity scheduling, and peer-led group support. These grandmothers, or community health workers, sit with clients outdoors on wooden park benches, providing a discreet and safe space for mental health discussions. They are trained extensively, covering topics from psychoeducation to basic counseling skills, and supported by continuous supervision to enhance their ability to care effectively.

This grassroots approach has shown that mental health care can be both effective and sustainable, delivered by members of the community who understand the cultural and personal nuances of those they help. The Friendship Bench has not only provided essential mental health services but has also empowered these grandmothers to become pillars in their communities, much like the granny midwives of the past.

In America, where young Black children and adults face unique challenges, a similar approach could be revolutionary. By training community leaders and trusted, elder figures, we can offer culturally sensitive and immediate support to those in need, potentially reducing the high rates of suicide and mental health crises among Black youth. This model emphasizes the importance of community involvement and the powerful role of empathy and understanding in healing, providing a beacon of hope and a practical solution that could be adapted to American cities facing similar challenges.

Learn more about this groundbreaking approach from Dixon Chibanda, founder of Friendship Bench in his TED Talk.

Questions? Stories? Need a mental health expert to discuss Black health issues and medical racism for your media story? Get in touch.

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