The following piece was written in December of 2012 in response to Jovan Belcher, then linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, who murdered his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and subsequently committed suicide. Re-editing this piece has conjured some emotions that I foolishly thought I had graduated from. I hope my words will encourage those in need to take the necessary steps to achieve mental wellness. As a matter of disclosure, I have no background in mental health outside of my own personal experiences.
The event was a harsh reminder of my own personal experience with a similar circumstances, as well as sparked a conversation about the black community and its relationship with therapy and the pursuit of mental health. There are so many layers to the murder of Kasandra Perkins and the subsequent suicide of Jovan Belcher. There are questions as to whether or not Belcher’s actions were the result of brain damage from his years of playing football. Others question the propriety of the Kansas City Chiefs playing the day after such tragedy, especially with head coach Romeo Crennel witnessing Belcher’s suicide. There is the three-month-old child who will never know her mother or father and will one day have to hear the horrifying story of how that came to be.
Statistically speaking blacks in America are far less likely to take their own lives. A common phrase in the black community when discussing suicide is generally “we don’t do that,” which is true except for when we do. Some have speculated that blacks are less likely to commit suicide because we are better equipped to handle adversity because our lives to varying degrees are more challenging as a whole. I don’t know that the validity or invalidity of such a statement can ever be truly proven. I’m not even sure that I like the idea of using any “black burden” causality to either justify our collective condition or negate instances of black suicide.
A very important conversation that needs to be had that I have yet to hear in all the discussions of this weekend’s tragic events leans toward something else black folks don’t do … seek therapy. The ideal of being stretched out on the proverbial couch has either scared or embarrassed the black community for generations. After all, the black community has far too many “real” problems (employment, gangs, law enforcement etc.) to spend time and money on addressing how we feel. Moreso, there are too many perceived vulnerabilities to letting anyone know that we feel anything that might make us weak. To many in the black community the idea that Belcher was simply “crazy” is as far down the rabbit hole as most blacks will venture.
I can easily imagine a scenario where Romeo Crennel either flatly turns down therapy or keeps it at bay with a variety of excuses. It is, after all, the middle of the NFL regular season (even though the Chiefs’ record is a paltry 2-10 after winning this weekend’s game) and he simply has too much to do to spend time baring his soul to a stranger. Remember, Crennel was a leader of men who are all varying levels of rich and hyper-masculine. Playing Sunday’s game was as much a “tribute” to Belcher and Perkins as it was a collective effort to move forward and be strong.
I had a similar experience in the late ’90s when I lost two coworkers and friends to the same type of murder-suicide scenario. I was intimately involved because the man who would commit both acts regularly came to me for relationship advice. I would later learn that there was no relationship at all and that he was in fact obsessed. I will never forget the day of those tragic events as much as for what happened beforehand as learning what happened afterward. The last conversation I had with him before he committed those unspeakable acts ended with him telling me that I wouldn’t see him for awhile. I wrote it off because he would frequently take sick days and whatever time off he managed to accrue. Much like Brady Quinn, quarterback of the Chiefs, I was left to question whether I truly listened and what, if anything, I could have done to prevent what happened. As a side note, both of my friends were black.
That, of course, is the ripple effect of violence and death. The living are left with questions and guilt. The burdens dispelled by ending one’s life frees them of the burdens and demons that they could neither carry nor exorcise and places them squarely on the shoulders and souls of the living. Whether it is me carrying the guilt of action not taken, or a grandmother left to raise a baby mired in tragic legacy, it is those who remain who are left to hold the bag.
So in reality, it is those who seek therapy and help that are truly sane. It is those determined to handle the weight of their lives rather than to simply shove it off on those who love them that are actually strong. Grieving someone who has committed suicide is a double-edged sword of sadness and anger. Please heed what I say. If you love the people around you and you are having issues that require some sort of therapy seek help immediately. If not for yourself than for those around you.
The strongest among us embrace our weaknesses and frailties and address them to the benefit of ourselves and those we care about. Be that person.