Black History 365: Fonda Bryant

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How struggling with suicidal thoughts inspired one woman to address Black mental health

Brittany Jones-Cooper·Reporter Thu, July 7, 2022 at 2:35 PM

Fonda Bryant’s path to becoming a mental health advocate started with a personal crisis: In 1995, while living in Charlotte, North Carolina, she was struggling. Her appetite was non-existent, she was exhausted all of the time, and she willingly sought out isolation.

“I just thought, I’ve been working hard, I’m raising a son, I’m going to school. I had no idea I was struggling with a mental health condition,” Bryant tells Yahoo Life.

In fact, Bryant didn’t become aware of her depression until suicidal thoughts overwhelmed her on Valentine’s Day that same year.

“I was in so much pain, excruciating pain. People don’t realize how much pain you’re in because [the brain] is the most important organ in your body,” says Bryant. “I couldn’t take it anymore. My apartment was immaculate. I had a plan. I wanted to make sure that when I implemented my plan, my son wouldn’t find me, my brother would. And that would be the end of it. I wouldn’t be in pain anymore.”

On the day of her planned suicide, Bryant called her aunt, Spankie, and offered up her shoe collection. Sensing that something was wrong, her aunt called her back and asked Bryant if she had plans to kill herself.

“I said yes,” recalls Bryant. “And she went into action, like a superhero.”

Soon after, there was a knock at the door and Bryant came face to face with a Charlotte police officer who had come to escort her to a mental health facility. After some slight resistance, she agreed to go with him — a choice that saved her life.

“I tell people all the time: ‘We’re not weak. We’re not selfish. We’re not crazy. We just want that excruciating pain to go away in that moment,’” says Bryant of those driven to suicidal thoughts.

It was that pivotal day, coupled with a second bout of depression in 2014, that inspired Bryant to help others. Today she runs the nonprofit Wellness Action Recovery (WAR), which has a mission to spread awareness of mental health and suicide prevention. While WAR programming is open to everyone, Bryant specifically focuses on the Black community, highlighting the message that mental health does not have to be a silent struggle

“You know in the Black culture, the way we’ve been raised, you pray about it,” she says. “Don’t claim it, give it to God. It’s a sign of weakness, and in my family, like so many other families in the Black culture, we never talked about it. And when we did, it was never anything really positive.”

Bryant adds, “Mental health does not discriminate, and culture matters. The biggest thing with the Black community is letting them know that mental health is real, that we can recover, and we can get better.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person in the U.S. dies by suicide every 11 minutes, and one in five Americans struggles with mental health. Through her work, Bryant knows that people often don’t seek help because of the shame and stigma around mental health. That’s why she became certified to teach a suicide-prevention method known as QPR — Question, Persuade, Refer. The two-hour training teaches people how to recognize if someone is suicidal, what to say, what not to say and how to connect them to resources for help.

“Most people are training in CPR to help someone having a heart attack or stroke. QPR is the same, but it’s for a person in crisis mentally, or suicidal,” says Bryant.”If we talk about it, we can stop it. If we ask that person the suicide question, it lowers anxiety, and gives the person a chance to open up and share what’s going on with them. And it gives us a chance to help them.”

By learning about the resources available ahead of time (such as mobile crisis units and walk-in services), Bryant says that we can all play our part in keeping ourselves and those we love safe and healthy.

Back in 1995, Bryant felt alone and unsure of what to do or where to turn. Today, through programs and a podcast, she’s using WAR to help those in pain find hope.

“You never know what someone is going through. A smile can hide a lot of pain,” says Bryant. “Suicide is everybody’s business, and anyone can prevent the tragedy of suicide.”