Monday, November 16, 2009

Lay My Burden Down -- Remembering Michael W. Scott

I'm devastated by the apparent suicide of Chicago Public Schools Board President Michael W. Scott.

I knew Mike Scott dating back to the time I was a reporter, and as public figures connected to the city of Chicago go, he was one of my favorites. Let's just get this out of the way: He was fine as wine! A proud son of the West Side, he was always sharp -- always clean. You tend to see and talk to the same people at the same civic events here and it gets tiresome. But I always enjoyed seeing Mike Scott at events and waiting for my hug, peck on the cheek and small talk. I remember always complimenting him on the fact that he always smelled really good.

In short, he was a brother who made an indelible impression. In manner, in word and in deed he was well-liked and well-respected. He seemed to handle the thankless pressure of the school board and all its problems with grace and humor and always seemed passionate and engaged in the monumental effort of making the community better and safer for the youth.

The polished public persona doesn't square with the man who was pulled from the Chicago River with a self-inflicted bullet to the temple. It's what has led public officials all day to express shock and disbelief at his passing.

And while I'm deeply saddened by the course of events, I can't say that I'm shocked. As someone who has previously struggled with and been treated for clinical depression, I know firsthand how good we are -- Black folks in general and Black professionals specifically -- at masking pain. I know how good we are at "presenting" well in public -- white-knuckling through the day, mustering up every bit of energy to function at a very high level, excelling at every task we're presented with -- and then falling apart in private.

I don't know if Mike Scott was clinically depressed or not, but I do know that high-functioning depressed people tend to carry a greater amount of shame and are harder on themselves for being unable to "get it together". It's hard to tell someone you want to kill yourself and have them believe you when they envy you and think you have it all.

But Mike Scott's death is a salient reminder of the danger of unexpressed pain.

Black women will reach out for help -- whether informally through friends, or professionals, or both. Black men don't. They kill themselves.

Black men are seven times more likely to kill themselves than Black women according to the American Association of Suicidology. The suicide rate among Black men doubled between 1980 and 1995 to about eight deaths per 100,000 people, making it the third leading cause of death among Black men. And while the rate has skyrocketed among Black males between 15-19, as the Scott case illusrates, it cuts across all age groups of Black men.

This phenomenon is what led my former colleague Amy Alexander to write, with Dr. Alvin Pouissant, the outstanding "Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans". "Lay My Burden Down" is a groundbreaking examination of the uncomfortable, too often unspoken issue of suicide in the Black community. Amy was inspired to explore the topic because of her own brother's suicide in 1979. Sadly, three decades after her brother's death we still have accomplished Black men like Michael Scott so despondent and experiencing pain so unspeakable that they take their own lives.

As a community we are still loathe to publicly tackle mental health issues, particularly ones that can code as chronic, like depression. We have yet to unpack the stigma attached to seeking help for mental health issues. Add to that the complicated history and baggage of Black masculinity and the unwillingness to relinquish "strength" (real or perceived) in favor of seeking help, and you see Black men like Mike taking their lives.

Chicago media will be relentless in uncovering the backstory that led to Mike Scott's suicide. Whatever the outcome, it's going to be ugly for his family and ultimately for his legacy. We may never know exactly what led this proud, educated, accomplished, able Black man to the edge of the Chicago River in the wee hours of the morning to take his own life.

But I hope it's a wake-up call to all of us to push past the well-presented packages of the people in our lives and pay closer attention -- even when things seem "all good." It could easily mean the difference between life and death.

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