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'You can help people, I know you can' | Charlotte woman combatting stigma surrounding mental illness

Fonda Bryant said it's not unusual for people in the Black community to dismiss mental health issues.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Editor's Note: This story discusses suicide. Reader discretion is advised.

More than 12.3 million people seriously think about suicide, CDC data shows.

 Back in 1995, 28 years ago, Bryant considered the unthinkable. To her, life was just too hard to manage. 

"I was in a lot of pain; I was struggling," Bryant said. "My brain was telling me, 'You’re worthless. Kill yourself. No one’s going to care.'"

Valentine's Day 1995 is a day she will never forget. 

"I almost took my own life," she explained. 

Bryant said she is here today because an "angel" intervened. 

"My aunt Kellie went into superhero mode," Bryant said. "She had me voluntarily committed and, as bad as that day was, she saved my life."

RELATED: Charlotte advocates discussing bringing awareness to mental health

According to Mental Health America, 13.4% of the U.S. population identifies as Black or African American, and of those, over 16% have reported having a mental illness in the past year. 

The study went on to explain mental health conditions usually occur in Black and African American people in America at about the same or less frequency than in white Americans. 

According to the study, however, the historically Black and African American experience in America has and "continues to be characterized by trauma and violence more often than for their white counterparts and impacts emotional and mental health of both youth and adults." 

Fonda said it's not unusual for people in the Black community to dismiss mental health issues. 

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"People of color and Black people, we've always been taught, pray about it, don't claim it, it's a sign of weakness, give it to God," Bryant said.    

This is why Bryant is so passionate about her advocacy for mental health awareness. Her first-hand experience gives her insight and drive. 

 If you or a loved one are facing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, there is help readily available. You can call Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or chat with them online. There are also resources in North Carolina available here and in South Carolina available here.

Bryant said she never really got into the mental health awareness space until she joined National Alliance on Mental Illness back in 2014 when she said depression was starting to creep up on her again. 

 NAMI's purpose is stated on its website: "NAMI is dedicated to improving the lives of millions of Americans affected by mental illness."

"And I started contemplating suicide," Bryant said. "And I also had a second angel who came and rescued me, and that was my son." 

Bryant said her son walked up to her and said, "You can help people. I know you can." 

"And that's when I joined NAMI, went to therapy and the rest is history," Bryant said. 

Credit: Fonda Bryant

One of Bryant's passion projects is the suicide prevention signs she has placed around several parking garages in the city. 

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Bryant said the signs came about after she was talking to a close friend. Bryant, who was working in Uptown Charlotte at the time, asked a security guard which parking deck in Charlotte had the most suicide attempts. 

He said the Center City Green parking deck, which is located by the Marriott in Uptown. 

RELATED: 'One person can make a difference' | Mental health advocate pushing to require suicide prevention signs in NC parking decks

After a bunch of back-and-forth conversations with officials, Bryant was eventually able to place a green sign in the deck with a number to the national suicide prevention hotline, 9-8-8. 

"I'm so proud to say that, since December of 2020, we've had zero suicides in that parking deck," Bryant exclaimed. "And I know, I know, it's because it all signs, because three simple words, 'You're not alone.'" 

Bryant's ultimate goal is to get her green suicide prevention signs into every parking deck in Charlotte and the state. 

RELATED: Lawmakers introduce suicide prevention bill in NC General Assembly

She has been busy working to file a bill that would help her in her goal. The Fonda Bryant Suicide Prevention Signage Act is currently working its way through the general assembly. She said she hopes to see the Fonda Bryant Suicide Prevention Signage Act pass the North Carolina General Assembly, granting funds to put signs in parking garages that let those considering suicide know that help is available.  

"When you’re struggling, you truly feel like you’re by yourself, so those three words, 'You’re not alone,' let somebody know you’re not the only one struggling," Bryant said.

Along with working to get her signs into Charlotte parking decks and filing a bill, Bryant has also been training Charlotte leaders in a suicide prevention training method called QPR or Question Persuade Refer. 

Back in July, Fonda announced 35 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officers were trained in QPR. 

"And I taught them how to recognize the signs of someone in crisis or suicidal, talk to them in a nonjudgmental way, provide hope, and be positive," Bryant explained. 

Bryant said she believes everyone should be trained in QPR.

"I tell people, QPR is just like CPR," Bryant said confidently.

Bryant said she thinks especially our youth should be trained in QPR. 

RELATED: Local suicide prevention activist prepares for National Suicide Prevention Week

"Everybody thinks that youth are too young to understand suicide," Bryant said. "When I speak at school, I always ask kids, 'How many y'all know someone or yourselves are going through something,' and everybody's hand goes up." 

Sept. 10 through 16 is National Suicide Prevention Week.

Director of education and advocacy at Mental Health America of Central Carolinas Kevin Markel believes more people need to be aware of this specific week. 

"It's always good if we can highlight mental health crisis, not from a punitive standpoint, but just from the harsh reality of health care," Markel said to WCNC Charlotte over Zoom. 

He said suicide is a huge issue that often we don't talk enough about, which is why awareness is so important. 

"It's really great, where we can really highlight the need for everyday people to kind of stand up and be able to recognize warning signs and, you know, say something to help keep people alive," he said. 

Contact Meilin at mtompkins@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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