Friday, February 10, 2012

Black, Old and Mentally Ill: From Hollywood to Your ‘Hood

In the U.S. getting older for many people means sometimes losing one's independence, managing persistent physical aches, taking prescription drugs, and adding a plethora of doctor’s visits to their daily routine. Add to that being a minority and you’re looking at complicated changes in family and community dynamics including widowhood and isolation.

Today is Feb. 3rd, 2 days after the public announcement of iconic television music and dance show creator Don Cornelius' suicide. Many of us are still in shock about his passing, some are angry, and still others may feel shame. Because honestly speaking, many of us dismiss that African Americans have thoughts of suicide, let alone commit suicide. How could this legend leave a legacy to end this way, we question? But the truth is that many people, including African Americans contemplate suicide. We may have for too long held a fantasy of Don Cornelius being invincible, living on forever, aided by weekend reruns of Soul Train episodes and the Annual Soul Train Music Awards. But admittedly Don Cornelius was an aged man. He was just one of millions of aging individuals in our country who regardless of economic and social status was showing signs of getting old, possibly feeling isolated and not only contemplated but planned his own death.

When death occurs regardless of the way it occurs it's always painful to surviving loved ones. When someone commits suicide it leaves the living with so many unanswered questions and guilt about whether they could have identified more depressive signs sooner or speculate about if they could have saved the life of the person who killed themselves. One of the hardest realities nowadays is that a lot of people choose to die and the way they want to die. If you recall, in the 1990s when Dr. Kevorkian was almost crucified for aiding sick people and the elderly in assisted suicide, several others acknowledged that folks are in physical, mental and emotional pain and not everyone is willing to wait on life to take its natural course towards death. Despite anyone's religious beliefs, many people everyday are making plans for their future, including how and when they want to die.

One day, as I sat underground at the train station in New York City, an elderly woman in her 80's approached the bench and sat beside me. She struck up a conversation about the day and then she began to recall how long she and her now deceased husband had lived in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, in what is a trendy, young area of the city. Not once since her husband’s death had she considered relocating to a community where she didn’t have to climb stairs and could feel less anxious about the crowds rushing around her crouching body. As we continued to talk, she shared personal stories of her friends who were old and in anguish because they are alone and don’t have familial supports around them. But the most striking revelation of our conversation was how this complete stranger told me of her own plans to end it all one day. She told me a very descriptive way she would kill herself when the time came where she could no longer care for herself and was too depressed to continue living. I was in awe. She knew how much and what to take to end her life. She seemed very accepting of her circumstance too. I was and still am struck by her matter of fact plan.

This woman didn’t have any children. She was the only surviving member of her family and her few living friends were practically miserable. The devastating truth is this is the world in which we live. This woman’s story was a drop in the bucket of stories of people who outlive their spouses, neighbors and friends. They live in a world that doesn’t recognize their importance or worth and few people care to talk to them about what they’re feeling inside and experiencing in everyday life.

Who really knew the Don Cornelius we saw on television the way Don knew himself? What we thought was that he was rich, successful, creative and revered. And he was. But he may have also been so many other things that were sad and hidden. In reality, what we think we know of someone’s interpersonal experience is not really what they are experiencing or may be only part of what they're experiencing.

When I used to visit the elderly and homebound in my work as a Mental Health professional, I saw lots of people who lived in city high rises they could never leave unless they were wheeled out in a bed or on a stretcher. I saw sick and elderly people who couldn’t feed, bathe, clothe or walk themselves. And even among the people I visited who seemed happy to have a visitor for the 1st time in a long time, I still felt the loneliness they kept when I would be leaving their homes. They too talked to me about the invisibleness of aging and the pain of getting old and feeling uncared for.

Right now in our country, over 3 million people commit suicide each year and as per the last statistical report in September 2009 by the American Association of Suicidology “suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among African American males” who usually commit suicide in comparison to African American females who attempt but don’t complete suicide. According to a SAMHSA (Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services) report “8.3 million people have had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year (2009 SAMHSA report); 2.3 million made a plan, 1.1 million actually attempted suicide in the past year.”

The point of it all is that no one has to read reports and statistics to know that people are hurting. You just need to pay attention and you can see it. Sometimes you can feel it. My hope in writing this entry is to inform and express a standpoint to demonstrate the need to confront some of the myths about certain groups of people. And to know that folks are in emotional pain and we as a society are still not facing it. Talking about your reality may help you and others heal, demystify the stereotypes many share and maybe normalize what is going on inside.

I am eager to know your thoughts on this story and stories like this. Please subscribe to our blog and post your comments.

Praying for a healed world,


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