The only thing that makes the death of Don Cornelius more troubling than it is on its own is that he reportedly killed himself.
This brilliant, innovative visionary man, who forever changed lives of African American entertainers and the music world with an American experiment called “Soul Train,” apparently shot himself in the head at the age of 75.
The report made me weep.
Why? Because of all the illnesses we talk about in our society, mental illness is still taboo. Mental illness is rampant, just as are other diseases like heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease, and yet, we don’t want to talk about it. To admit that we do not feel good emotionally, that we are depressed and just cannot seem to “get it together” makes us feel like we are weak.
And so, to escape being called weak, people drown in depression or other mental illnesses on a daily basis. People are sick and are not getting treated, nor have many of them ever been treated.
I am quite sure that much of the dysfunction that is so much reported about the African-American community is because a lot of African-American children suffer from some sort of mental illness. The illnesses are written off by parents and teachers alike; sick children are labeled “bad,” are suspended or expelled, because nobody likes their behavior – behavior that comes as the result of being mentally ill.
Children of more affluent families at least have parents who recognize when something seems to be wrong with their children emotionally and some, not all, get help. But even in those families, it seems that there is a stigma to needing help to deal with one’s emotions or mental health.
But back to Don Cornelius: here was an African-American man who apparently walked with horrendous mental anguish and didn’t know how to deal with it. He carried it inside him, as so many people who are mentally ill do, until it drove him to the depth of desperation and despair that resulted in his committing suicide.
I cannot imagine how badly he hurt. What people don’t seem to realize, or don’t realize, is that mental illness really does hurt. It’s not like a headache or a sore elbow, or even a bacterial infection, where some pretty readily accessible medications can help the pain go away. The pain of mental illness is different; it is a cloud that forever hangs over one’s head. Some days are less cloudy than others, but that stupid cloud is always there.
When little children, especially poor children, are labeled “bad” in addition to already feeling emotionally bad, the illness of self hatred is added to the broth already simmering within. When one hates oneself, one hates others as well, and that self-hatred, fueled by an illness that was never treated, leads, I am convinced, to much of the criminal behavior we see today.
Mental illness is no less an important issue than is hypertension, breast cancer, diabetes or heart disease. It is no less a silent killer than is hypertension…and it is way past time that we take our heads out of the sands of shame and “man up” to the fact that way too many people are suffering silently, and are being driven to despair.
It is no more a sign of weakness to be mentally ill than it is to have any physical disease or ailment. In both cases, something physiologically and or biochemically is out of alignment, causing discomfort and pain.
As we work hard to heal physical illness, so should we be working as hard, or maybe even harder, to at least effectively treat mental illness, and move the stigma out of the picture.
Too many great people are living with mental illness, and too many have died way too soon from it…
Like Don Cornelius.
A candid observation …