Brett Scudder stands at the podium, so tall his entire torso rises above it. He looks out into the audience and says, in an upbeat tone, as if he’s beginning a comedy routine: “I am tired of people telling me that black people don’t kill themselves.”
Hoots, cheers, and applause are tossed back at him from the crowd, a mix of educators, parents, and social service workers. This is the United Federation of Teachers’ “Men In Education” event, downtown at the UFT’s swanky financial district office. Scudder is one of a handful of service providers with booths at the event, handing out fliers and pamphlets with titles like “Recognizing the Signs of Teen Depression.”
It’s not an unusual Saturday for Scudder, a Jamaican-born Bronx resident who holds no degree in social work or psychology, but who has dedicated the past eleven years of his life to suicide prevention and fostering emotional wellbeing in New York City communities and schools. He’s a one-person prevention and support system, focused on a problem that too often stays under the radar, particularly among young black males— depression and suicide.
Recent data reveals an alarming need for suicide prevention among young African-American men. A report published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association/Pediatrics found that the rates of suicide among black boys under 12 have almost doubled since the early 90s, while the rates for white boys have nearly halved. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in black males between the ages of 15 to 24, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, although it is still more prevalent among whites.
“Depression is very prevalent in our communities, but people don’t even know they are depressed, because we’re not humanizing it in a way that they understand that this is what it is,” says Scudder. He uses his own personal experiences with grief, suicide, and depression to talk about these issues and beat back taboos and stereotypes. “We talk about it from a pathology and a psychiatric perspective, so people are depressed and don’t even know they’re depressed.”
Scudder knows about battling demons and attempting suicide. More than a decade ago, after losing an IT job here in the city and then his marriage, he suffered what he calls a “meltdown.” He’d always been a support for people in need around him, but after recovering from this experience he decided to rewrite the focus of his life. “I’ve gone through these experiences,” he says, “so I know how it feels when 11 o’clock comes around and you are lonely and dealing with all these things by yourself, and you really wish you had someone you could meet with and talk with.”
As the only employee of his own foundation, Scudder Intervention Services Foundation, Inc., he singlehandedly runs an array of services, including a 24-hour helpline, regular conferences and support groups, counseling, as well as workshops and talks in schools. He connects with and counsels people across all ages, races, and social situations.
Yet Scudder tries to take every opportunity to open up dialogue about suicide and depression for males, especially African Americans, who he says are surrounded by cultural taboos about expressing their emotions and discussing their struggles. And he finds himself spending a lot of time in the Bronx. There, African American male youth buck a national trend: just over 12 percent of black high school boys surveyed in the Bronx reported attempted suicide on the CDC’s 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Nationally the rate was 6.8 percent within this same demographic.
Experts and Bronx community members name a host of different stressors that may contribute to this trend: from poverty, exposure to street and domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and lack of male mentorship, to the pressures of a scores-driven school atmosphere. Bronx District 12 Councilmember Andy King, who grew up in the borough, is concerned about the daily realities of young people. “If my home life is stable and I got issues on the outside, I can come home and filter those or have real conversations that will help me navigate,” he said. “But if I come home to a home environment that’s not stable, I’m just a ticking time bomb.”
Mental wellness has become a city priority with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Thrive NYC initiative, announced this past fall, which injected $850 million dollars over four years into mental health outreach and research. King says that some of that money is being filtered through the Department of Education into the borough’s schools.
Change within the schools is needed, according to King and other community advocates, who feel that the borough schools should be a haven for students who are dealing with unstable home situations. This means including more emotional support—and reinstating programs like art, music, and gym that have been cut across many schools.
Reverend Kim-Maria Osorio does crisis-based counseling in the Bronx as the borough supervisor of the New York Chaplaincy Services. Through her work in the community and with young people, she sees the host of stressors that children carry around inside of them from their home life. “As human beings, we are built up psychologically, mentally, physically, and then we have that spiritual part that needs to be fed. When you are a child coming into school and all you’re doing is being pushed mentally, it’s like the ‘don’t incinerate contents under pressure’—you are almost waiting for that last push before you explode,” she says.
“We need to have a sit down with the powers that be and let them know: ‘listen, this system is designed for failure’,” she adds. “The rate of suicide and attempted suicide—and it’s scary—is going to continue to rise.”
Brett Scudder’s goal is to combat that rise at a systemic level. He’s working on creating a team of educators and community members who will discuss incorporating emotional wellness into school curriculums with Department of Education officials. Yet day-to-day, he’s dedicated to making a difference on a school and individual level through counseling and emotional support groups. He has a weekly emotional support groups for students and regular counseling at the East Bronx Academy for the Future, and is in the process of formalizing relationships with other Bronx community schools. He travels to schools across the city to give talks to students and handle crisis calls.
East Bronx Academy for the Future, a six-through-twelfth-grade community school, has counseling and other emotional support services in place, but parent coordinator Marilyn Johnson says that Scudder adds another level of support for students and staff, especially when it comes to helping young men of color. She recalls one student who went from being the strong, “‘can’t nobody tell me nothing’” type to encouraging his peers to talk about their feelings, after his meetings with Scudder.
She also values Scudder’s emphasis on suicide prevention, which she says is a concern within the school and has always been under-addressed in the community. “It does make a difference,” Johnson says. “I’ve seen it make changes in some ladies lives too,” she says, remembering a particular student, “who said, ‘I’m getting ready to take my life because life is not worth living anymore,’ and, I’ll put it this way, that young lady is still here. She’s a senior and she’s getting ready to graduate.”
Beyond one-on-one counseling, Scudder sees emotional support groups as a way to instill peer support within the school. “One starts sharing their lived experience, the other starts crying, and then two people start hugging—oh my God, you are building a support system within the school for each other,” he says. “So when they see each other in the hallways, it’s not laughing or mocking each other anymore, it’s realizing that we’ve created a bond.”
This year, Scudder is also focusing on teachers. A lot of teachers and staff members, he says, “are burnt out, stressed out—the schools are now the new war zone” says Scudder. “It’s not just about teaching anymore, you have people who have a passion for teaching, but then you come in and you’re dealing with kids with trauma and a whole lot of behavioral issues. It’s like this is a psych ward.”
At a Suicide Prevention Council meeting (another of Scudder’s regular events) this past Monday at Bronx community health center Urban Health Plan, the focus was on mental wellbeing for teachers. Scudder listened to the problems faced by school professionals who attended—from the challenges of overburdened classrooms to supporting traumatized children—and was immediately on his phone, messaging a Department of Education official to connect one attendee’s school with the appropriate support services.
The immediacy of his response is a cornerstone of his mission and the reason why his cell phone is always on, day or night, for an emergency: “Crisis and distress for people are not things that we can put off,” he says. “It’s something that we have to address now.”
Who to Call in Crisis:
1-800-LIFENET (1-800-543-3638) is a free, confidential help line for New York City residents, where certified mental health professionals are available 24 hours per day/7 days per week.
1 (800) 273-8255 is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, also available 24 hours per day/7 days per week.
http://www.sisfi.org for more information about Scudder’s wellness groups and hotline.