If you have watched the news this week, you may have heard that Don Cornelius, the man who created Soul Train in the early 1970s, had passed away at the age of 75. However, in much of the media, the circumstances of his death—an apparent suicide—have been largely glossed over, if not omitted completely.
The news reminded me of a session at last year's NCAD conference. Virgil Gooding, Sr., MSW, LISW, executive director and therapist at Keys to Awareness & Associates (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) talked about a condition called dysthymia, or dysthemic disorder, which he explained as a “low-level form” of depression that is prevalent in African American communities. While these people typically can work and function socially, they simply never feel happy.
While Gooding discussed how the condition often leads to a prevalence of “self medication” in African American communities, a writer for a news website called "The Grio" related the ongoing challenge to Cornelius’ untimely passing. “This event should awaken us to the uncomfortable reality of the pervasive mental unwellness in the black community," said Ronda Racha Penrice, an op-ed writer for the site.
In addition, Penrice pointed out that black communities have traditionally written off suicide as a “white” problem, often frowning upon the idea of seeking counseling. “The pervasive logic has been that black people can handle anything because, historically, the black community has been subjected to unthinkable and unimaginable suffering and survived,” she wrote. "But in the end, the black community is just as vulnerable to mental instability as any other.”
What should the field take from these sorts of unfortunate events? What can we learn? Since the stigma associated with mental illness is still very prevalent in these communities, what can the field do to close the gap and get more people the treatment they need?