Don Cornelius Died . . . So What?

Image from washingtonpost.com

On February 1, 2012, Los Angeles police declared “Soul Train” legend Don Cornelius dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. As my Facebook feed filled up with R.I.P. Don Cornelius, I thought to myself, We’re not addressing the larger issue here: how he died.

It got me thinking about suicide rates among the black community. Suicide is something largely not spoken of among black people. No one likes to discuss suicide after someone’s self-inflicted death, but I think it’s important to address the issue. A study released in 2006 showed that each year 70,000 black people try to kill themselves and about 1.4 million or 4 percent attempt suicide at least once in their lives. From an article in the Associated Press:

While depression is strongly tied to suicidal behavior in whites, anxiety disorders were more common than depression in blacks who attempted suicide in the study. That is an important racial difference that could alert doctors to black patients who might be contemplating suicide, said [Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard University psychiatry professor and race relations specialist].

According to an article that appeared in the Journal of Black Psychology:

Historically, suicidal behaviors among African Americans received scant attention because of the belief that very few African Americans completed suicide; it was also assumed that they did not experience depression. Blacks were historically viewed as a psychologically unsophisticated race that were naturally high spirited and unburdened with a sense of responsibility.

Suicide rates among black men are growing. A 2007 statistic from the National Institute of Mental Health shows that of every 100,000 people ages 65 and older, 14.3 percent of them are likely to kill themselves. Mr. Cornelius was 75.

There’s no indication that Mr. Cornelius let anything on to family or friends. In a Washington Post article, Rev. Jesse Jackson noted that Mr. Cornelius did not seem upset when they spoke a few days prior to Mr. Cornelius’s death. Police say that Mr. Cornelius left no suicide note and are investigating his mental state. They have ruled out a homicide.

A quick snapshot toward the end of Mr. Cornelius’s life shows that he had serious health issues and may have endured a bitter divorce with his second wife. This information doesn’t provide definitive proof that Mr. Cornelius was contemplating suicide, however, it may give us a peek at what may have contributed to his suicide.

Significant health issues are often overlooked in regard to a person’s mental state. Sometimes, a person won’t let on how much pain he or she may be in even though the pain may be unbearable. Mr. Cornelius may have been very lonely and in a lot of physical pain. Those two factors combined may have led him to take his life. But I am speculating—no one knows that for sure.

People will wonder how this unfortunate act could have been prevented. Unfortunately, it couldn’t. Mr. Cornelius did not tell anyone that he was depressed (as far as the media and police know), suffering, or contemplating taking his life. Generally, people most determined to take their own lives will not speak of it to anyone.

But there is a lesson to be learned here. We can encourage people of all races to speak to someone when life gets to be overwhelming and too burdensome. We don’t need anyone else who is blessed with gifts and talents to commit suicide because he or she feels as though no one will listen and no one cares. 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-SUICIDE are good resources with people who will listen and genuinely care. May we all learn from Mr. Cornelius’s lesson and get help when we truly need it.

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