CHARLES: Compassion. That little guy was very compassionate. He loved people. He loved serving. He was very thought-conscious about the next person. And I want to blame that on his nurture at home from his father and I. But it was just something that was innate about him. He always and often and a lot of adults, of course, always mentioned how he was always so willing to run up to them and give them a hug or ask them how they are. The compassionate component was probably the biggest part of it. He cared, genuinely cared about things, about people and about feelings.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And he seems that he cared about people even when they necessarily didn’t show him that care back, right?
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You want to tell me a little bit about that?
CHARLES: Absolutely. Seven was one who accepted everyone. He was that kid that played with everyone on the playground. He talked to everybody. He never had any cliques or any groups that he would associate with. And then he would also come into defense of the ones that were shunned in some way or another. He also was able to, you know, deflect some of the things that would come his way with humor.
And from that he was able to take the brunt of people’s ugliness and understand that was not necessarily something that he needed to fight back against, or he needed to defend himself against what they did to him. He was always cognizant of how he moved and the actions that he took. Very cognizant of those things.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, he was born with some challenges at birth. And that led to him being bullied at school?
CHARLES: That is some mind calisthenics … [it’s] a little bit of a stretch, however. Yes, he was born with a perforated anus which allowed him, it’s a one in 5,000 rare disease. Which allowed him to get a 15 hour surgery on the day that he was born. He then, of course, had a colostomy bag for a short time, and then we just dealt with all of the after effects and tried to have him the closest to a normal digestive system, as normal a digestive system as we can help him achieve.
Now the bullying started for some other reasons. It just ended up being one of the stones that was thrown. That, you know, sometimes he had a little fecal incontinence and of course, it came with the smell. So he had that his entire life. So there was always something said … it just comes with it. Nevertheless, it didn’t lead to him being bullied. It was just a part of it.
CHAKRABARTI: By the way, I appreciate the correction. And, you know, it was a polite correction. By the way, people usually don’t give me the benefit of the doubt of calling it mind calisthenics. But I really do appreciate it. Listen, I want to hear as much as you want to tell us about your son. And the reason why I asked that previous question is because, I mean, Seven experienced a lot of bullying.
CHARLES: Correct. He experienced bullying, as we all have in some sort of environment, where you’re pointed out where you’re different. He wasn’t his entire life repetitively bullied. His bullying began August 27th, five months before he died, when he refused to argue or fight a girl that had called him a racial slur. And so the one who did come up and defend him was angry that he didn’t have that defense mechanism in him.
So that person, who at that time defended him against the person, became his bully because he didn’t do any adverse or any consequential things towards the other little girl. Well, from that, whatever policies that come into place with fighting, that was just part of it. … My husband and I began to advocate for just a paper trail. Just write it down like, you know, the little dude got choked. And for me, I’m military, you know, just give me the third copy. I’m sure you have one written down. And once that was exposed that they had done nothing.
Then the policy steps that are implemented in our schools, they begin to be offended. And then, of course, you know, shame, ashamed from it, because I am that parent that was constantly there. My son was ten years old and I have served a policy council and the PTA for nine years. I was there and everything and Seven did every single thing. Oftentimes we were the only families or one of very few that participated in everything.
So it gave me some sort of, I guess, in retrospect, false sense of security. But at the time, I thought that I was building a stronger bridge and connection to the administrators and then, of course, the other people that had my child in their care. Turns out where I advocated, and because I was able to advocate the way that I was able to advocate, unlike other parents whose children had been bullied, they’d be so frustrated, they would come in swearing and wanting to fight.
And I didn’t. Those policies that they sent home, that they had us to sign, I also read them and I also read the parts that they were supposed to uphold. And in finding that they did not, and I was able to display how they did not.
My son not only had that one incident of being bullied or choked on the bus, he then began to receive the wrath of the adults, the teachers who were embarrassed, who were being shown in the light that they necessarily overall did not necessarily have. But with this situation and this child and this history, it was shown that for the first time, somebody showed it. Now, of course, after I made a viral post, there were people coming in from everywhere saying, Oh, that happened to me, that happened to me, that happened to me.
Then compounding the embarrassment, and the backing of this bully live Facebook video that I did, that began to have the teachers treat him a different way. Seven had been, his principal even said, Seven is the first child that come through this school from kindergarten to fifth grade and has never been in trouble.
CHAKRABARTI: I’m so sorry to interrupt. But so you’re talking about a period of several months where he had experienced, I would call that severe bullying. Being choked on the bus. And you advocating effectively or at least fearlessly on his behalf. And that making things, it sounds like the adults were in a sense, some adults were then, you know, he experienced retribution from them.
CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me during this time, how was Seven handling it? What did he talk with you about? I mean, how did you see this?
CHARLES: Well, we talked every day. My son was one, he was one of those children that a lot of parents, and a lot of other children, were pretty mad at him about. Because he was very honest. And if you ask him a question, he’d answer it. And so each day, because I went on to push it up to the Board of Education, and then they had to do a school administrative investigation. And oh, that really burned them up. It all started necessarily not even from him being bullied, but the fact that the policies that were in place were not followed. And that was part of us.
CHAKRABARTI: So, Tami, I have to say, I hate asking this question, but I –
CHARLES: Please … don’t hate it. We are helping, and we are doing this together. So sometimes you got to do the rough stuff. Go ahead.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, your strength is an inspiration to me, because as I was walking to work today, I had dropped my own kid off at school just before I came here to work. And I held his hand the whole way. And I was thinking, what would my life be like if I couldn’t feel his hand in mine? So tell me what happened on January 19th, 2019.
CHARLES: Well, let’s start with January 18th. My son had come home from school and we had … already had months of speaking about how to handle the bullies, the things that were coming up and how teachers would take some things and hold it against him or pressure him, because, of course, his bullying story had gone so viral and they were locked into such a bad light. They would say like Seven, you know, what would your mom think if you did this? What would your mom think?
And when you’re at school, you know, people don’t bring up your parents. So a ten year old guy, and he was prepubescent. It was a little embarrassing for him. And, you know, things that we would talk about and go through. Well, on that Friday, which was the beginning of the Martin Luther King three day weekend, we had talked that morning and I said, you know, we have this day to do and then we have a three day weekend. And let’s just process what we can do together and how you’re feeling and all of that. And we had been doing that at home, praying, talking about it … him telling me everything.
Well, that day … when he came home, I noticed in his eyes something else was up. And I asked him who he played with. He told me about the one little boy that had pretty much been ostracized the whole school year or since they’ve been in school because of his size. And he’s a bigger kid and, you know, he doesn’t have a lot of friends.
But Seven had to play with him. Because he had already told me that, because he had been telling on the other people for bullying. And by this time, the school officials were incredibly diligent about any report that any child said about bullying. So the kids were really feeling some effects at home and in school. Well, that made Seven, you know, almost enemy of the state. Because he did say something, you know, he just wanted it to stop. He didn’t realize that him trying to be protected was making him an enemy of the state.
So he found that out at recess on that day. You know, at the end of the road, that was just the last straw. So he comes home and we talk and he tells me who he plays with. He goes and plays his video game, kind of blowing off steam. We eat some and then we have this moment. If you have a little boy, then you know you’re got to watch all the superheroes. So we sat and watched Black Lightning and Supergirl, some of his favorites. And we laid in bed and cuddled. And as I cuddled him and were watching him, I’m telling and I’m saying to him, we love you so much. I love you.
Everything that we do is for you. Everything that we try to work through is for you. Seven, our entire being is about you. So as he’s getting out of bed and I’m trying to kiss on him. … You know, he’s getting to the age where he’s like, Come on, Mom, get off me. But he pulls away in a kind of way that is a little bit more than Mom, get off me. But also now, in retrospect, leaning to, you know, that some sort of separation maybe in his head. The next morning, Seven has, of course, a birth defect.
So … he didn’t spend the night over a lot of people’s houses just because of the nature of his issues where he had to be naked for somebody to help him. Nevertheless, our house was the house that everybody came for. So that night he played his game and he played and talked on the phone with his best friend, my nephew, his cousin, first cousin, and they talked till 3 a.m. I saw that on the phone.
And finally I was like, boy, go to bed, you know, just go to bed. So, you know, we’re going to pick them up tomorrow. Everybody’s coming over here, go to bed. So he goes to bed and at 9 a.m., I get him up to, you know, finish some chores if we’re having company.
And then here’s some writing things. And I’m a very educational parent. So, you know, we’re going to work on these, you’re going to read this one little chapter in the book, and then you’re going to write this chapter, let’s work on your penmanship and then you’re done for the weekend. And I was at the grocery store trying to get food for eight boys for three days, teenage boys for three days. And then planning, of course, we were going to go hear the Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that they give here in Louisville at the Muhammad Ali Museum.
This is what we did every year. Yeah, well, as I come home with all the groceries, I’m knocking on the door, banging on the door, you know, because you boys got to come help you get the groceries out. And about 15 minutes of me banging … because he did stay up till 3 a.m. So I just assumed that he had gone back to sleep. And we never really left Seven at home, but he was getting ten now. So this hour you know, that we left him was kind of, you know, a test, so to speak, practice.
And finally, after much to do, I was inside the house looking all over the place because at this time he was a jokester. He was such a jokester because he was going to hide behind something. And at this point, I’m frustrated, like, okay, dude, I am not playing. Where are you? I don’t want to play anymore. Where are you? And that is, you know, now I’m like, has he made it to where like when he was a small, small child, I’d had to look under the bed going to pillows.
… So I was like, man, I’m now I’m have to shift into this mode. And I’m thinking to myself, man, you’re too big for me to have to be looking around and you know better and so and so and so. And as I looked in his closet. After, of course, going all over to our home basement and everything outside, inside, neighbors, like, where is this dude? I go back in this room and I find my son in his final resting place.
And I grab him by the waist at the same time, almost thinking, I guess, you know, I’m almost thinking like still in that playful mind, like, boy, don’t play like this. You know, this is not a game. This is not what you do to play. And as I got my son on the floor, I saw then that my child was with God. Of course I am eight years’ war time, disabled American veteran, Navy, Medical. So I have seen my share of dead bodies. And I have done my share of resuscitation. So doing it on my son and beginning that, I had enjoyed a great cup of coffee before I came home.
And as I breathed my breath into him, and then the breath that escaped his body was mine. It smelled of coffee. I knew then that my son was gone. Besides having to later decipher all the thoughts that were going through my head at the time. The biggest one was reviving him and getting him emergency help.
But I knew. I knew. I immediately called my husband, who I had just dropped off at choir practice, choir rehearsal, getting him here. We only had one car working, so I had to get him here.
And ironically. My son was 80 pounds. And we knew that, you know, I had a scale. You know, we girls, we have scales everywhere. So he would always jump on the thing. And when the emergency people weren’t coming fast enough, I attempted to pick my son up and put him over my shoulder and I was telling him, I said, we’re on our way to the hospital. And at that time, the EMS burst through.
And I remember screaming, Help my baby. Not save him because that was something that, it wasn’t in my head. Well, I didn’t want to admit. But help my baby. And as many of them arrived, many of them came to his aid, the police and everything. They pushed my husband and I out of our home. We were out of the home. And of course, in retrospect, when something happens to a child, it’s always treated as foul play. Who wants to put ten year old and suicide in the same sentence?
CHAKRABARTI: Tami, first of all, I cannot find the right words to express my sorrow. … And my gratitude that you have taken this horror and tried to turn it into a force to help others. So that’s what this hour is about. I’m going to give you a little bit of a break here for a second. And let me just bring in Dr. Kevin Simon. He’s sitting across the table with me, and he’s been listening since the start of the show. Dr. Simon is an adult child and adolescent psychiatrist. He’s an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an assistant in the Department of Psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. Simon, welcome back to the show.
KEVIN SIMON: Yeah, thank you for having me. And … thank you for sharing this story regarding Seven.
CHAKRABARTI: Seven is one child in a group of many. And I think for some people, that I’ll admit, myself included, when I found out that the rate of death by suicide for Black children, in particular, between the ages of five and 12. There were some studies done a couple of years ago, was twice that of other children. It really took me a back. It’s a shocking statistic.
SIMON: Yeah, I know it is. … Hearing her talk about her son, unfortunately, it is a common thing that we see, at least, you know, in the emergency rooms, in the hospitals, in the studies that you’re referring to, you know, a lot of people think because of the pandemic, mental health has worsened. And there is some exacerbation of of depression, anxiety, certainly. But actually, this predates the pandemic. And so if you actually look at the data, starting around ’99, 2000, there’s a switch of Black and brown youth having an uptick, twice as much, in terms of suicide attempts, in suicide completions.
And the startling aspect is the age of the youth, right? So you’re talking about ten, 11, 12, and even more recently between 2017, 2019, we’ve recognized an uptick in adolescent girls. This is about 15 to 17 years old. So the question begets, is, you know, what’s exactly happening at pre-teen years where someone is thinking that that’s a solution to their problems? And so Ms. Charles described one. Growing up with a chronic medical condition. And we know that that’s a risk factor for things like depression, for anxiety.
Not being able to do some pro-social things like sleepovers. Then layer in now heading into middle school where classically people are going to be rude, tease, yet now you’re teasing someone … that has already been going from day one trying to figure out, well, who am I? How do I fit into this larger society and context.
CHARLES: I’m sorry, Dr. Simon. But Seven wasn’t going through who he was and how to fit in. We had his life so structured that he found out right before he died that there was a place that he did not fit in, and that brought it on for him. So I’m sure that’s probably true with other people. But for this kid, he knew exactly who he was. He knew exactly who he loved. He knew exactly what happiness was. What he found out was that the world was not as his life, and his parents, had made it to be so beautiful.
SIMON: What you’re highlighting is what a number of parents, particularly of color, find out. Is, Here it is. So I have a three and a half year old and a one year old and very regularly read to them the books and the pictures that they see, have kids that look like them. And unfortunately, the evidence shows when you have kids of color who enter into school, and this is as early as preschool. Our society has certain stereotypes that are believed, or myths that are believed.
And so Seven, or my son … could be doing the exact same thing as their peers. Exact same thing, playing with Legos, doing whatever. Yeah, but the perception is because there’s a melanin hue, [my son] is likely going to be doing something that’s bad. And so now if something actually does happen, there’s a push, there’s a tease. The evidence shows that Black boys, Black girls are in detention more often, are suspended more often, end up in juvenile justice more often.
Yet we know the behaviors that they exhibited are the same behaviors as any other youth. … And so unfortunately for Black youth, it tends to be that society, and so those people who are in society, doctors, teachers, lawyers, tend to characterize their behavior as like deviant. Even though it really is just typical adolescent behavior, typical teen behavior. What you’re describing, Ms. Charles, I’m just saying, it follows what the evidence shows.
CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re looking at a crisis and an emergency that’s been there all along that hasn’t received enough attention, and that is the mental health needs, particularly of children of color. Before the break, we talked a little bit about this really heartbreaking truth that, for example, for Black children between the ages of 5 to 12, the suicide rate is nearly twice that for white children.
Now, while among teenagers and young adults, suicide rates are higher among whites and Native Americans. Nevertheless, the rate of increase for suicides among Black youth has skyrocketed from 2013 to 2019. I’m looking at some studies that say the suicide rate of Black boys and men between the ages of 15 to 24 rose by 47% and almost 60% for Black girls and women of the same age. So we’re talking about that today. And Tami Charles joins us from Louisville, Kentucky. Her ten year old son Seven Bridges died by suicide in 2019.
And Dr. Kevin Simon is with us as well. He’s a child and adolescent psychiatrist and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. And Tami and Dr. Simon, we actually heard quite a bit from listeners with whom this really resonated with. For example, this is Lanay Pappillion. She’s 24 years old. She’s a law student. And she called us from Baton Rouge in Louisiana. And she definitely says she’s seen a change in her mental health.
LANAY PAPPILLION: I have definitely seen a more darker side of myself. My mental health has definitely taken the toll from where I was, to where I am now.
CHAKRABARTI: And Lanay told us that one of the things that’s made her mental health worsen is just witnessing year after year the violence that’s perpetrated on the Black community.
PAPPILLION: It breaks my heart. And we deal with this every single day and nobody speaks up for us. And the people that do speak up for us, they are also attacked. So it’s definitely been a mind blowing experience for me as a Black woman.
CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Lanay, and she’s 24 years old and called us from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I just want to talk about that here for a second with both of you. And and Dr. Simon and Tami, please feel free to just talk with each other. And let me just set up the question here. … I mean, can you talk about how that factors into these horrible numbers we’re seeing about mental health crises amongst children of color?
SIMON: You know something that Ms. Charles noted that I wrote down about her own son was that he was aware of who he was. And even at ten, nine, what that means in society. And so even the caller noted she’s recognizing a darker sense of herself. You know, from like historical literature, there’s this idea of the double consciousness for Black people and code switching.
In our society, how I behave on my block is very different than how to behave in the boardroom, is very different than how I behave at church. And when you’re existing as a Black American, it can be challenging and stressful to be having to do that consistently. So then now layer on the pandemic where we’re isolated and we’re now visually seeing, during summer of 2020, particularly, video after video after video of violence. There’s actually a study even before 2020 in the Journal of Adolescent Health that described for Black youth what it’s like to see, in social media, horrifying images.
And it said you would likely have symptoms of PTSD, symptoms of anxiety, symptoms of depression. This is predating the summer of 2020. So now you layer on summer 2020 and then the pandemic. It’s not surprising that at children’s and other hospitals, at least locally, and I know that this is the same case nationally, we are seeing record number of borders, i.e. people who needed inpatient level or higher level of psychiatric care, presenting themselves to the emergency room.
But we don’t have enough beds. And so you’re hearing about 30 patients waiting, 40 patients waiting, and children at one point, and there’s about 50 patients waiting between the ED and the medical floors for a higher level of psychiatric care.
CHARLES: My take on that portion is what you’re describing is definitely contemporary. When I gave birth to Seven, I was 35 years old. My husband was 53. So he had some very old parents, who had lived a long time, through some rough stuff that Black people do that predates the visual and worldwide sense of summer of 2020.
Now, as you said, you read to K.J. and all of the books that they have. In our home, we early read up from slavery. Callouses on My Soul. All of the Martin Luther King speeches and videos, and that. So my son was already pretty exposed to what it would look like, and how people of African descent is portrayed and treated. So we were already there in the brink of it, not trying to prepare him against anything, but understand how other people may see us. With us, those things were already in his mind.
So I can understand now when people are exposed to it, so much, so fast, that don’t already have a motion of memory. They don’t already have a historical point … I found that that was incredible, foundational for not necessarily prevention, but at least … feeling darker and lesser, as the 24 year old said, about their mental health.
… So it’s all about my community. And I, unlike Dr. Simon, I am the same here on this line in all of my boardrooms, and in my church and in the school. So it’s where you are in the community on how far you have to do the code switching. Code switching is there but is doesn’t have to be used and it is not for everyone. But it’s imperative that you’re able to move through these spaces. Again, knowing who he was as a person was important for me, for Seven to know that I’m going to present him to several spaces. And he, knowing himself, like our family, gave him the fluidity to move.
SIMON: Sure. There’s something you said, the word, particularly with prevention. And I just want to highlight, we really don’t have a great prevention system. … This is a major challenge that we have. It’s very difficult to identify and say, oh, this is the youth that’s going to harm themselves, because they can be smiling. They can be playing their video game. They can be seemingly jovial, as they always are. And sometimes, some mental health conditions, they reside within us, not outside of us.
And so if he went to sleep and mom is kissing him, he wakes up. And I’ve seen this with my patients. They describe to me waking up. And from the moment they’ve woken up, their eyes open, they feel a cloud over them. And it’s very difficult to contextualize for me, like, well, when you say a cloud, can you explain that to me? They’re like, Dr. Simon, it’s as though I know I don’t want to be here. And so now they happen to be talking to me, and so I can help them tease that out. But I think there’s a lot of people who don’t have anyone to talk to.
CHAKRABARTI: Can I ask you something else, Dr. Simon. And that links to something that you had said earlier. There’s no one specific set of signs of distress that repeats in every person. And I imagine in young people, it can be even more varied. But I’m wondering, again, because of what race is in America and racism in America … is it also possible that the signs of distress in a child of color are just interpreted as something else by the professional?
CHARLES: … Socially, historically, in any way of people of color crying out for help has traditionally always been ignored, lessened. And maybe we missed a boat. But even in terms of pain, physical pain itself, our melanin to some of the doctors and the practitioners, signals to them that we can tolerate more pain.
So we don’t need as many medical devices and many outlets, as much intervention because of what we can take. And what is amazing about that is, of course, now studies will support that thinking, and even teaching in the schools. So the weight of us as people of color, it’s almost a DNA hack. Where we have to pass on, or be the example of, or even teach our children how to be strong. And that word and that persona is so overrated and so overused, due to the fact that my grandmother used to carry 70 pounds of cotton, and I’m good to carry two gallons of milk.
So strength is something that is forced upon us and that is perceived that we already have. And sometimes, we as people think that we’re supposed to have it, and when we don’t have it, we feel even alienated from the thing that is supposed to already be ours.
SIMON: … For youth and adults, unfortunately because of society and historical tropes, there is this perception of, I should be able to get through this, right? If you are an adolescent or you are a young adult, like this shouldn’t hold me back. So now you’re in your own head thinking, wait a minute, I should be fine. I don’t need to talk to anybody. Now, if you do actually end up in the emergency room, unfortunately, Black youth are adultified.
So you have a ten year old, but people are perceiving that ten year old to be 15. And so you’re expecting that 15 year old to behave in a way, but they might be ten. And this has happened to me, where someone’s telling me, hey, we’ve got a 16 year old female. And I look … [and] actually she’s 14. In terms of pain, there’s evidence that pain is treated very differently against Black patients. … But specifically to the mental health, in terms of when you end up in the hospital, in the clinic, unfortunately, because there are not enough providers of color, there’s a lot of misdiagnosis that happens, and so with misdiagnosis, that comes mistreatment.
CHAKRABRATI: … Tami Charles, I want to give you the last word here, because we’re not going to solve this problem at all with a one hour conversation. But clearly, there’s a need. There are children in need. So for folks listening right now, I mean … what do you want them to know?
CHARLES: I want them to know they should take this audio, and this sound and share it with as many people as you can. No, we can’t stop it. No, prevention is a hard word. But awareness is our biggest tool. Together we can become aware of each other and our feelings, and in that way, learn to teach each other, and learn ourselves a different way and a better way to move forward, and have a tomorrow.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a resource for people who are thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support. The free and confidential service is available in either English (1-800-273-8255) or Spanish (1-888-628-9454). There is also a line tailored for veterans (1-800-273-8255).
The Commonwealth Fund: “Closing the Mental Health Care Gap for Black Teens” — “In the face of overwhelming demand for behavioral health services, the unmet needs of one group stands out: Black and brown teenagers.”