Today Music Producer and Hip-Hop Pioneer “Baby Chris Lighty” was found dead in his Bronx home of an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head. Our prayers are with his family and friends. May he rest in peace.
I’ve hated the word suicide since I was 13 years old. That’s how old I was when one of my family members first tried to take his own life. It was actually my 13th birthday. When my mom arrived to pick me up from school, I was excited to find out how we would celebrate, instead, we went straight home where I was told that my loved one was ‘sick’. We didn’t celebrate my birthday at all that year, and since I didn’t know much about this ‘sickness,’ that’s all I really cared about.
My loved one made several more suicide attempts throughout my teen years. I learned to anticipate the phone call–the one where my mom would tell me my family member was dead. I dreaded checking my pager (yes, I had a pager) and seeing the number to our house in the middle of the day. That’s how it always happened in my dreams; I got the page, called home and got the news while standing in the lunchroom. I thank God that dream never came true. I thank God I never got that phone call–my loved one is still with us today.
Mental illness runs in my family. I have a deceased aunt who suffered from schizophrenia. Last year when visiting my grandmother, she explained to me that my aunt came down ‘sick’ after going out one night and having a spiked cocktail. “When she came home she said ‘Ma, something in that drink made me feel funny’,” said my grandmother, recalling the night my aunt came home acting differently. “After that drink, she was never the same.” My father, who is a medical doctor, assured me that my aunt was schizophrenic, her onset brought on in her early 20’s when the disease most often appears. Had she stayed on a drug treatment, she may have been able to live an almost normal life, instead, she spent the years I knew her resigned to her bedroom, chain-smoking cigarettes and listening to Luther Vandross albums. A spiked cocktail leading to Schizophrenia? Sounds a bit crazy, but my grandmother is just an example of what is almost a typical unwilligness amongst African-Americans to accept and discuss mental health.
Mental illness is real–more real than I wish I ever had to personally know–but, it does not have to be deadly. Unfortunately, our community is plagued with what I call the “you’ll be fine” remedy. How many times have you dismissed a loved ones hurt with, “you’ll be fine”? How many times have you possibly sat listening to a friend and not realized they were making a cry for help. So many of us have been taught to tough it out, to pray, to be calm and carry on. Sometimes, that’s just not enough.
I understand how difficult it is to step into a therapist office. I’ve tried and failed twice to enroll in therapy. Something about it makes me so extremely uncomfortable, and though many of my girlfriends openly and regularly discuss their visits to the therapist, I still haven’t been able to find my way to the couch. But why should I work hard to eat right, workout and be good to my body, and yet, deny the same attention to my brain? A good college friend of mine named his first blog “We All Need Therapy,” I think he was on to something.
No matter how healthy we think we are, or aren’t, taking care of our mental and emotional well-being can no longer be an afterthought. We cannot continue to crusade against obesity, smoking, and drug abuse and not rally to increase our focus on mental health. How many suicides and mass shootings must occur before we start taking our feelings seriously?
I worry about how easily we dismiss each others problems. I worry because I’ve seen what depression looks like, and it is certainly not something to dismiss. It’s a tricky illness, depression–sometimes it presents as narcissism, other times as self-pity or indulgence–it can even look jealous and selfish. It’s hard to know what you’re seeing, but when someone tells you they’re not feeling well; it’s time to start really listening.
I hate the word suicide. But more than I hate it, I want to embrace it. I want the dialogue to begin–the conversations to be had. I want our community to start finally talking about mental and emotional health issues. There can no longer be a stigma; people suffering from emotional despair can no longer be called weak. We cannot keep assuming we’re all going to be fine. We cannot afford to lose another Shakir Stewart or another “Baby Chris Lighty.” We cannot keep ignoring suicide–because, if we do, death will continue to find us.
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