Day Two: An Enigmatic Death
Day Two of the November Project begins with my thoughts on the suicide of DEF Jam Executive Vice President, Shakir Stewart.
I often don't know how to respond to suicide. It's an extremely difficult situation, not only because of the person's death but because of the uncomfortable circumstances surrounding it. Based on everything that I know and have read, Stewart's was an enviable life. He was young, accomplished in his career, intelligent, talented, driven and desirous of helping those who were willing to help themselves. The world was his oyster. Yesterday, Stewart decided that this unique combination of gifts weren't enough to keep him tethered to this life and ended it all with a gunshot.
Generally, I've noticed that folks have a similar reaction to suicide: Dismissal. People start out by saying all the right things. They openly wonder what went wrong. They dole out "Rest in Peace" pronouncements. Well wishers are sorrowful and respectful. But there's also some hidden judgment as well. When pressed about their feelings, people speak in terms of 'giving up,' 'selfishness' and 'cowardice.' They speak of all the responsibilities that the departed has left behind. They ask how the person could do this to his or her loved ones. They express a deep disappointment with the deceased. This usually also goes hand in hand with some sort of a religion-fueled damnation - after all, suicides have condemned themselves to the lake of fire, or so the belief goes.
What's usually missing is a general discussion of mental illness in the form of depression. I don't know much about Stewart's situation but it sounds as if he could have lived if he had received help from a mental health professional. Like other groups, black people don't like to acknowledge mental disorders, particularly when they're close to home. I speak from experience. I've battled depression for most of my adult life. Since first being diagnosed with depression in the mid-90s, I've been on some form of medication. This was difficult, not only because I had to admit that I needed help, but also because of the stigma attached to depression. Not long after I found out that I was depressed, I went to my mother and sister with the news. My sister's advice to me was to "cheer up." My mother told me that I needed to get right with God and start going to church again. In their minds, there was little possibility that the help I needed couldn't come from within, or be received from the pulpit. I don't fault them for their responses, but I think they illustrate a greater point. Neither my mother nor sister are foolish people. What they are (or were) is completely misinformed about what depression is, and what it means to be stricken with it. So many people are not aware of the disease that many of those who need help simply aren't getting it.
An arduous navigation of this country's inequitable terrain can be made nigh impossible if one also has to grapple with mental illness. My hope is that we can reach a point at which depression and other diseases can be identified and treated before they snuff out more promising lives. We should look at needless, premature deaths like Stewart's as reminders that there are millions of us who are struggling with disease, and who don't deserve to be marginalized because of it.