After the death of comedian Robin Williams by suicide, many passionate conversations have emerged about death and depression, but I can’t help but notice the conversations we aren’t having. Traveled around Oakland and heard the words “blue suicide” (aka suicide by cop), but no one wanted to stay around and say much more. Last year, actor Lee Thomas Young also took his life, but his story still remains untold. This is for him.
The year is 1998 and I’m sporting bright green Keds and OshKosh B’gosh overalls. I use terms like, “sike” and phrases like, “I know you are, but what am I?” I’m young enough to unabashedly love the Disney Channel, but old enough to find my mother’s existence embarrassing. And everyday after school I rush home to watch, “The Famous Jett Jackson.” I’m not examining the significance of the fact that Lee Thompson Young is an African-American star of a Disney Channel Television show and not a sidekick like most brown faces on cable TV. I don’t analyze the impact that Young has by being a positive role model or the show being a vehicle for meaningful conversations about race and class. At 13, I’m more interested in Young’s honey brown eyes and confirming that our astrological signs are compatible. He’s an Aquarius and I’m a Leo. Not looking great, but there’s still hope. When you are young anything is possible. Life is just unfolding and there are so many possibilities.
The year is 2013 and I’m sporting a dress with leggings and a scarf (very Goodwill chic). I use words like, “transparent” and “mindful.” I’m young enough to still get carded, but old enough to spot a heart breaker. It’s been a couple of weeks since Lee Thompson Young died by suicide. Over the years, I would look him up, my old crush returning, but with more of an appreciation of his body of work. The absence of positive, strong African-American men portrayed on television is still very prevalent. The last thing I would expect is that my childhood crush would commit suicide. From the outside, Young seemed like he was on the path to true fame. Never frequenting TMZ or tabloids, from afar he portrayed a gentleman. And while our astrological signs might not have been compatible, I shared in his pain of feeling that the only choice I had was to end my own life. For years, I suffered in silence because I was told to “pray it away” or to “pull myself up, by myself, by my bootstraps.” I never felt validated for my feelings of depression and I often felt ashamed and wondered why I couldn’t be strong like everyone else.
Since I started sharing my story of surviving a suicide attempt, I have heard similar stories from brown faces like mine. I started realizing that it wasn’t that I was the only black person suffering from depression; it was that my community just wasn’t talking about it. The more I shared, the more I heard and learned about others who looked like me and had similar experiences of trauma.
I wonder if I hadn’t finally started talking and more importantly hearing the real stories from my community what might have happened. I know that I survived to open this painful dialogue, and provide some healing. My heart breaks for Young, because he felt like my hometown hero.
So Lee Thompson Young, I’m sorry you suffered in silence. I’m thankful for the work you’ve done. I’m also hopeful that your death will be the catalyst of change in the African-American community in regards to mental health. However, I’m saddened by the cost. And of course the 13-year-old girl in me will always remember those striking honey brown eyes.
Kelechi Ubozoh holds a degree in journalism from SUNY Purchase and was the first student reporter to have an Op-Ed piece published in The New York Times.The Brooklyn native’s first spark of interest for the the mental health field ignited after spending six months interviewing the New York homeless for her undergraduate thesis. After working as a print reporter for The Amsterdam News and Hometown Media Group in New York. Kelechi is excited to combine her love of research, writing, and connecting with the community with being instrumental in ending mental health stigma in the community.
When Kelechi isn’t exploring Oakland treasures, she’s singing in karaoke bars under the alias Vegas Cherry.