By Chrisleen Herard
Howard University News Service
Denita Shayne Morris committed suicide when she was just 23 years old. In March of 1986, Morris hung herself in her apartment in Mattapan, Boston, with her 2-year-old son inside. Neighbors eventually called police due to the decomposing smell that lingered from her cadaver; her body’s last cry out for help that would eventually start an organization under her name 21 years later.
“When DeeDee died I was 19, and it wasn’t her first attempt,” her sister, Toy Burton said, “She had prior attempts, but at that time I thought she was okay. She had just moved to a new apartment in Mattapan with her 2-year-old son. … It seemed like she was doing better,”
“The day that she died, I was in my bedroom with a few friends drinking, and my mom knock(ed) on my door, and she’s crying. … I opened the door and she’s just crying, so I automatically started crying too,” Burton added. “I asked what’s wrong and she said, ‘Dee Dee died.’”
Morris went by DeeDee, and she loved to draw, read, write poetry and sing – Teena Marie being one of her favorite artists. DeeDee was always seen in pictures holding someone, representing her loving and nurturing spirit long before she even became a mother.
On the day of DeeDee’s passing, officers notified her family of her death and informed them that her son was waiting to be picked up at the station. Once the officers left, DeeDee’s mother and siblings were left alone with their melancholy spirits. Their grief swayed from the ceiling where their loved one once hung.
Though DeeDee was a victim to suicide, her family were victims as well. No resources were offered by police on scene, nor were counseling or therapy made accessible to DeeDee’s family after the incident, and DeeDee’s death soon after left Burton to pick up the pieces of her own depression.
“After that I just started drinking more. I got into drugs and alcohol just to kind of numb my own pain — not only the death of my sister, but some unaddressed trauma that I didn’t deal with too, from my childhood,” Burton stated.
“I had my first suicide attempt when I was 25. But after that, I wasn’t so well, so I was cutting and inflicting self harm upon myself,” said Burton about how the trauma manifested itself.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the suicide rate in the Black community is gradually increasing. In just 2019, 7.04% of Black people died by suicide, (the equivalent of 3.2 million victims), increasing from 5.19% back in 2010. Additionally, in the report of Mental Health America, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration conducted a national survey in 2018 and found that 16% (4.8 million) of Black people have reported having a mental health illness while 22.4% of those reported having a serious illness.
These numbers, however, have changed amid a worldwide pandemic where suicide rates have actually increased more in the Black population than in the white population. In a U.S. News article, Dr. Paul Sasha Nestadt, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, stated, “(White people) may be more likely to have jobs that allow working from home, may have been able to attain child care, and based on fatality rates may have been less likely to have lost a family member to COVID. They also had easier access to mental health care. … There were no increase in suicides in general as we expected, but we did see suicides in Blacks almost double.”
The lack of accessibility to quality health care along with the negative connotations of obtaining treatment in the Black of community, have toned out the cries of those who are, and/or were, in need of obtaining aid like Morris and Burton.
“I had white friends that lived in Newton and they were going to therapy because they wanted a nose job,” Burton said. “I have been molested. I have been raped. I have been in domestic violence situations and not once did anybody say, ‘You know what? You need to talk to somebody.’”
“I was just holding that in and when you hold stuff in it festers, and it manifests itself in a way that you don’t want it to manifest itself. So I think we just have to normalize it and talk about it,” Burton added.
In 2017, Burton started an organization that encouraged expression instead of holding it in. Named after her late sister, DeeDee’s Cry was created to be a bridge that connected the Black community to the necessary resources they needed to mentally recover, as well as a listening ear that prohibits cries from going unheard.
“Starting DeeDee’s Cry wasn’t on my radar that I planned to do. I was posting on Facebook about my sister, it was her (55th) birthday,” Burton said. “This girl that I used to work with had in-boxed me because her brother had just recently died by suicide. … She asked how’d I get over the pain.”
“After going back and forth, I just decided to Google just to see what was out there. Being on these websites that deal with suicide prevention, I was angry because I didn’t see anyone that looked like me. … This wasn’t made for me. So … I’m going to create something, and it’s going to be for people of color,” Burton said.
DeeDee’s Cry not only hosts events and conversation surrounding Black mental health, but also engages with the community and has a suicide survivor support group of their own. They also supply a “database of resources for people of color.” DeeDee’s Cry’s mission is to provide a safe place and a comfort zone for Black people and their mental health that can be difficult to find elsewhere.
“DeeDee’s Cry has these panel discussions to let people know that they are not alone because social media has people thinking that everybody is living their best life,” Burton said, “When you hear that somebody else may be struggling with car payments or what have you, just struggling period, right? You kind of feel like, ‘Oh, it’s not just me’ or ‘There’s not something wrong with me’”
Deborah Mitchell, a supporter of DeeDee’s Cry, stated, “When Toy started the support group I joined because I wanted to be connected with Black people…I couldn’t find many services back then in Boston, I mean, I didn’t even know some of the basic things you can do…So I was really drawn to DeeDee’s Cry because I felt like I needed support from my own community. She’s like a wealth of information. She’s a good person that can connect people and resources.”
“I think one thing about mental illness,” Mitchell continued, “…it’s good to have family support, and you know, Toy reminds me of that…she’s a very loving person and she makes you feel at home. I needed to connect with DeeDee’s Cry because it gave me the family support.”
DeeDee’s Cry hopes to expand on a national level to support the Black community with their mental health, and partner up with other organizations whose mission is to provide aid to struggling families and individuals. Burton wishes to work with agencies to offer food, shelter, a transitional house and an overall space for people to find “peace, healing and resources.”
“Once I decided that I wanted to do this, … the first thing that popped in my head: I have to pay homage to my sister, right? And I’m like, ‘DeeDee’s Cry,’ because everybody just wants to be heard. That’s all it is, is that we just want people to listen.”
Chrisleen Herard is a contributor to HUNewsService.com and the Trice-Edney News Wire.