Nikki Webber Allen is the founder and president of I Live For, a nonprofit established last June that works to end the stigma around depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders in teenagers and young adults of color.

She remembers watching videos of rapper Logic’s performing his hit song “1–800–273–8255” at the MTV Video Music Awards this August.

“You don’t gotta die, I want you to be alive,” he rapped on stage.

After his performance aired that Sunday, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — the number featured in the song’s title — spiked by about 50 percent.

Nikki Webber Allen. (Mary Hui/The Washington Post)
Nikki Webber Allen. (Mary Hui/The Washington Post)

Watching Logic, Allen said, made her wonder how she could similarly bring suicide and mental health issues to the mainstream.

And watching Logic, she added, also reminded her of her nephew, Paul: smart, talented, compassionate, progressive.

But Paul never got to hear the song. He died by suicide in 2013.

Suicide rates

  • Between 1993 and 2012, suicide among African American children across the United States nearly doubled, according to a study published in 2015.
  • The steep rise among black children aged 5 to 11, from 1.36 to 2.54 per million children, even as it declined for white children, came as a shock to researchers.
  • While suicide rates for blacks are among the lowest in the nation when compared with whites, American Indians, and Asians and Pacific Islanders, suicide is the third leading cause of death for young black men ages 10 to 24, according to 2014 numbers from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Yet blacks are about half as likely as their white counterparts to get mental health care, according to a study published last year.

A silent stigma steeped in history

For Allen, who is African American, these numbers illuminate the very problem she wants to address: the silent stigma around mental health issues in communities of color.

“Black people, we’re used to being oppressed and silent from the time that we were brought over here…to civil rights and Jim Crow, to today with police brutality,” Allen said. “It’s kind of embedded in our DNA and our way of thinking” to endure burdens silently “because we have a history of trauma and being stripped of our name and our identity.”

Giving voice to the problem

Allen has a strategy to confront the stigma head on: by giving voice to those who would otherwise suffer silently, and providing a platform for people to share their stories of struggle and recuperation. She has a documentary in the works and in the spring will start a podcast. She is also building a digital archive of stories from people of color who have struggled with depression and anxiety. A TED Talk she gave in June about her personal struggle now has over a million views.

A personal struggle

Over the years, Allen’s constant drive for achievement and perfection took a toll on her. She excelled at school, and later in her career, quickly climbing the ranks of the film and television industry. She won two Emmy Awards as a producer, and later became the vice president of talent relations and casting at TV One.

But a few years ago, she found herself in a funk. She wasn’t sleeping or eating well, and had horrible anxiety.

She was diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety. She was ashamed, in shock, and in denial, and it took months before she told anyone about her diagnosis.

Then, on July 3, 2013, Allen’s world came crashing down on her. Her beloved nephew, Paul R. Webber V, age 22, had taken his own life after years of silently struggling against depression and anxiety.

Allen and Paul had been very close, but she had no idea that he was in so much pain. And he hadn’t known about her struggles, either, because she was too ashamed to share them.

“I also felt shame in that I wasn’t there for him,” Allen said. “And it still breaks my heart that he died from something that is treatable.”

These days, Allen devotes much of her time and energy to raising awareness of mental health issues. Drawing on her years of experience in the media industry, Allen’s documentary tells the tales of individuals of color who have struggled with, and triumphed over, debilitating cases of depression and anxiety. She hopes to finish it by next summer.

How Heather Heyer’s death gave her mom a voice

From wary observer to justice warrior