This month marks six years that Charlene Mabins has lived without her beloved son, Christopher. On September 16, 2007 Christopher, 18, committed suicide.
He was a smart kid whose behavior began to change around age 13. Mabins tried everything—doctors, counselors, mentors, hospital. Finally, at age 16, Christopher was diagnosed with depression. And still, Mabins could not save her son.
Christopher left a suicide letter. “I kept reading his letter and him telling me to be happy. He didn’t know he was my happiness,” said Mabins.
Today, to help educate others about depression and to help those who suffer from it or who may be suicidal, Mabins has created Christopher’s House of Hope. She doesn’t like to say she saves anyone, noting that “God saves.” But the organization educates people about depression, facilitates workshops and holds art classes that allow young people, ages 13 – 24, to express their feelings.
According to the American Association of Suicidology, suicide was the third leading cause of death among African American youth (ages 10 –19) between 1999 – 2010. Shooting was the choice method in more than half of the cases.
A few months after Christopher’s death, Mabins started giving away his college fund money to help others.
“I didn’t want it. I had saved it for him since he was eight…,” she said.
She was a hairstylist then and she started offering free haircuts to children through various nonprofit organizations also because it reminded her of all the Saturdays she cut Christopher’s hair. She learned a lot while cutting the hair of the kids she met. For one, she discovered how many children were homeless.
“I remembered when I was losing my home and didn’t know what to tell Christopher,” said Mabins, who lost her home after an illness. “I wasn’t worried about me but couldn’t see him out there with me trying to find shelter. That’s what made me try to help youth at risk more.”
She said while she cut hair, “I talked to them about their family life, school, their future, how were they surviving on the street.”
If she spotted an issue she thought needed follow-up, she notified their counselors.
A year after Christopher’s death, she started talking more about depression. She was immediately embraced by most organizations, but the community that was hardest to reach was the black community.
“Nobody wanted to talk about anything related to killing yourself,” said Mabins. “It was like a taboo.”
Often black parents called her after their children had attempted suicide or were hurting themselves. Mabins was glad they called her, but she said, “Our goal was to try to do PREvention, not INTERvention.”
She still finds that it takes longer to build trust and respect with the black community. But she has also learned to be strategic in her approach.
“Talking about depression is still the main factor but we may host a dinner or do a giveaway—maybe hygiene and safe sex products,” she said. “That gets us in the door.”