Showtime insists it’s time for the Black community to start talking about depression, and for men to stop trying to bear every burden alone.
First you get the money. Then you get the power. Then you get…Death? Doesn’t even sound right does it? Well it seems as though that is the way things have been going as of late. There have been an unusual amount of high profile celebrity deaths this year. And quite frankly too many of them were caused by suicide. Too many men have decided to stop fighting, and just give up on life.
In February of this year I was shocked when I heard that the creator of the TV dance show Soul Train, Don Cornelius killed himself. Cornelius was the 75-year-old creator of one of the longest running shows on television. Soul Train was responsible for taking black music and spreading it across the globe in a time when segregation and racial tension ruled the world. In the 70’s and 80’s Soul Train was where you would go to find everything that was good in the world of R & B, Soul, and Hip Hop music. Cornelius was responsible for showing America a part of the African American experience that they would have otherwise never been exposed to.
Like most African American kids who were born before the 1990’s, I grew up watching Soul Train. Cornelius would have any and everybody on his show that had a popular tune at the time. I would get up on Saturday mornings, sit in front of the TV with a bowl of cereal and watch the dancers move their bodies to all of my favorite songs and see artists perform some of their biggest hits.
At the age of 75 Cornelius should have been at the stage of his life where he could sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor. The hardest days of his life should have been behind him: Growing up on Chicago’s rough and tough Southside. Serving 18 months in Korea as a part of the U.S. Marine Corps. Being a part of the civil rights movement. Creating a brand that helped mold the careers of acts like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and more in a time where black artists couldn’t even dream of getting the same amount of exposure as their white counterparts. Despite overcoming all of those obstacles, there was just one bridge that Cornelius couldn’t cross. And that bridge is called depression.
Cornelius’ spirit was broken. He had been divorced two times. An autopsy revealed that he suffered from seizures for over 15 years after complications from a 21-hour brain operation. In a statement that was released shortly after his death, his son said that Cornelius had been in “extreme pain” shortly before his death and told him “I don’t know how much longer I can take this.” It has been widely speculated that Don Cornelius was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or an early onset of dementia.
Last week the Hip Hop community lost one of its most notable executives to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Chris Lighty was the most recent celebrity who made the news after making the decision to end his own life. Lighty was a Hip Hop heavyweight. He was someone who had been visible in the culture for over 20 years. I guess his official job title would be a manager to the stars. But he was so much more than that. Lighty was a brand ambassador, a star maker, a record label owner, a general. He was an integral part of Hip Hop’s transition from break dancing to the boardroom. He put LL Cool J in those gap commercials during the mid 90s. In 2007 he brokered a deal between rapper 50 Cent and Glacéau’s Vitamin Water that helped the rapper walk away with a hefty $100 million check.
Lighty wasn’t just some fly-by-night success story. With his partner Mona Scott he created Violator management. Violator was responsible for managing the careers of artists like LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Mariah Carey, Missy Elliott, Ja Rule, Foxy Brown, and more. He was a man who took Hip Hop, put it on his shoulders and walked it into the world of commercialization. At the age of 44, he had already accomplished what many folks strive for in life. He had gotten the money. He had the power. He had the respect of his peers. But none of those things was enough to guard him from whatever demons he was dealing with. The demons that took control of him on the day that he died.
After his death, there were reports that he was in debt to the IRS for $5 million and that may have been the reason he took his life. Those reports were debunked when it was revealed that he had just sold one of his homes in order to pay his debt off. Then there came the stories about trouble between Lighty and his ex wife. Sources were reporting that Lighty argued with his estranged ex wife Veronica in a Bronx, New York home before telling her “I’m tired of this,” stepping outside and shooting himself in the head with a 9mm handgun. A few days after police found Lighty laying in a pool of his own blood Veronica made a statement through a family friend denying that any argument took place that day. Norman Downes told the NY Daily News “He was in a lot of pain and he possibly had some financial difficulties…But they didn’t get into a fight that day. The only person that really knows is Chris, and he ain’t here.”
Lighty was a boss in every sense of the word. By all accounts from those who knew him he was a strong and mentally tough individual who solved many problems for others and made things happen when others couldn’t. He was a deal maker. He was a tough, no non-sense, street savvy manager who would go hard for those who he worked for. But like so many of us, life was just beating him down. Financial problems, marital problems, figuring out how to support two children, the financially turbulent music industry are all the things that Lighty had to deal with. Just because he saw more money in his lifetime than you or I doesn’t mean that his problems were any different. As the great Notorious B.I.G. said, “Mo’ Money…Mo Problems.”
There have been other high profile suicides this year. In May former NFL All Pro linebacker Junior Seau shot himself in the chest with a .357-caliber Magnum revolver. Seau had reportedly been suffering from insomnia and was using the sleep aide Ambien to help him sleep. Even though the FDA approves Ambien, one of the side effects of the drug is suicidal thoughts or actions in depressed patients.
Seau’s autopsy results found no substantial damage to his brain or nervous system. The National Institutes of Health is examining his brain tissue to see what role concussions may have played in his mental state before his death. The toll that 19 years of professional football takes on one’s mind and body is immeasurable. So even though it doesn’t seem that the concussions that Seau suffered as a player contributed to his death, it can be reasonably assumed that he was suffering… silently… for who knows how long.
The catalyst for these suicides may never be known, but it should act as a springboard for us to open our eyes about depression and mental illness. Too often men go through what these men went through and choose the same path to escape. The stress of everyday life becomes too much to handle and they take matters into their own hands.
In the African American community there is an unspoken rule that says “we don’t talk about depression.” Frankly, most times black folks just totally dismiss the demons of depression and mental illness. We don’t talk to each other about it, we rarely seek counseling, and we walk around carrying these burdens that are too heavy for us to bear. It’s got to stop!
Chris Lighty was a wakeup call for me. A man whom I have seen for the last 20 years, who one would think had everything in the world to make his life complete, is dead. Gone from his children forever. He will never return to this earth. The day that Lighty died, I made the decision that no matter what is happening in my life, I can never take myself away from my child. I will walk away from anything that I feel is challenging my ability to mentally cope with life. The punches that life throws at you and me can be brutal. It’s a cruel and cold world, but as men we have to learn to adapt.
Most importantly we have to begin talking to others about our problems. Internalizing what we are going through and keeping it bottled up is not healthy and can lead to disastrous results. We are taught that men are supposed to be men, and when tough times come we should just stick our chest out, hold our head high, and just keep on pretending that nothing is wrong with us. That’s all fine and dandy, but what happens when you are walking around, carrying all of that weight on your shoulders and life comes along and gives you the hardest kick in the ass that you have ever gotten…BAM! You get knocked to your knees… You want to get up… You try to get up… You NEED to get up…but you can’t because you are being weighed down by all of the other baggage that you have carried around for so long. So you know what happens then? You give up because you get to a point where you just can’t take it any more.
As fathers our main duty is to provide for and protect our children. Nothing else in this world should be more important than that. So for that reason alone I have made a declaration to myself and to my child that no matter where I go in this world, or what I accomplish, nothing will have a bigger impact in my life than my desire to be here for her.
No one ever said that this life was going to be easy. But regardless of the circumstances we have to keep fighting. We have to live life and keep pushing. When we get up in the morning we should be armed with the tools that we need to fight whatever battles life throws at us. And the most important tool that we have is the ability to communicate with others about our problems. Don’t let pride get in the way of you living a life of happiness.
My decision has been made. I don’t want the money, the power, or the respect…I only want to live a life that is filled with purpose and passion! If you are suffering from depression or anxiety, you have to make a decision to not just exist in this world, but to actually live your life in it.
Photo of Chris Lighty – AP/Jim Cooper