Death of Don Cornelius calls for suicide awareness







Headline 02-01-12: Don Cornelius, creator of the long-running TV dance show Soul Train, is dead at 75 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Los Angeles police tell the Associated Press.

Somewhere, someone asked how the man with this legacy could lose his reason to live, could take his own life when, in the words of writer Barry Targan, “It’s a good thing to have a big good thing to remember.” Maybe like author Terri McMillan (“A house and a car and all the money in the bank won’t make you happy”), Mr. Cornelius, in activist Dick Gregory’s words, found fame and fortune to be meaningless.

Somewhere, someone asked how people could’ve jumped from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Army Col. Ricky Malone explains, “A lot of times [suicide] is about feeling trapped. ‘I’ve got to get out of here, and if I can’t I’d rather be dead.’” (Source: Washington Post)

“Army suicide rate runs above that of civilians: U.S. Army suicides surpassed the rate for similar civilians in 2008 following major troop deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.” (Source: U.S. Army report cited by the Star Tribune)

A former insurance investigator once told me that a single car with a sole occupant crashing into a cement abutment at 2 am sends up red flags to a probable suicide.

Assisted suicide is legal in Oregon, Montana and Washington, and in The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

Prozac is prescribed heavily for depressed women lacking in self-esteem; it gives them more of the alpha-male feeling that comes with high serotonin levels, according to the New York Times. Suicide rates are disproportionately higher than the national average among women who have had breast enlargement and enhancement, and among young women in China.

“How do you not commit suicide?” a White man once asked an American Black man. “Well, we have to work so hard trying to keep you White folks from killing us that we don’t have time to think about killing ourselves.” (Source: civil rights activist James Farmer, Jr.’s autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart)

“Most Whites could not psychologically handle being Black,” journalist Tony Brown wrote.

“The bottom line,” jazz drummer Dottie Giamo Dodgion said, “is that you can’t let it get to you.” Perhaps for Mr. Cornelius, it did.

“I’m forced to spend so much time and energy reacting to race,” author Nathan McCall (most famous for Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America) wrote. “I hate it. But there’s no escape, man. No escape.”

The primary motive of all suicides, according to the Washington Post, is escape. In her advice column, Ann Landers agreed: A person who dies by suicide does not think of anything except how to escape the pain.

Maya Angelou wrote, “Jobs, lovers, family and friends can exist one day without any of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.” Being forgotten is painful.

“Knowing someone cares is my only means of survival,” former president Jimmy Carter’s mother Lillian wrote. In the medical profession the “failure to thrive” syndrome is sometimes used to describe elderly men whose children have moved away, whose friends or spouse have died, who are no longer employed or contributing members of society, with nothing to look forward to. Life can lose meaning. “An unconnected life,” Writer and psychoanalysis researcher Judith Viorst wrote, “Is not worth living.”

Writer Ernest Hemingway’s motto was that in life the first obligation is to endure, to hold. He committed suicide.

An attorney once told me that lithium levels are low in the depressed. According to political writer Andrew Solomon’s memoir The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, the bottom line is that there is no predicting or controlling who/when/why/how anyone falls to depression. If someone feels the need to seek help, quite limitless avenues are available to alleviate the pain and suffering; however, most depressives do the opposite: hibernate.

Human life is activities and pursuits. The depressed feel too sad for either. The ”opposite of depression is vitality.” When asked how to help the depressed, Solomon answered, ”Blunt the isolation,” i.e., pull them out by being there.

“You don’t die of committing suicide,” Olympic swimmer Greg Louganis said. “You die of sadness. I was so sad it hurt.”

I once asked a young Black man if he was ever too sad to get up off the couch, to exercise — his usual remedy — or to grab that self-help book off the shelf. He answered, ”Only a woman could make me feel like that.”

One day in the remote portion of a park in Richmond, VA, I saw a young man sitting alone by a tree seeming despondent. “Would talking to him help?” I wondered.

On the eve of Thanksgiving 2006, a man jumped from the 46th Street bridge. I saw the red lights of rescue squads flashing and wondered would talking to him have changed what troubles brought him here.

Rescue and emergency personnel witness that men succeed more often in their suicide attempt than women.

Newspaper columnist Clarence Page once wrote about a Holocaust survivor who slapped a suicide survivor. “Suffering is normal!” she said.

Larry Canard told the Washington Post he wished his dad — a police officer for more than 20 years — had found reason to live in him, his son, instead of using his gun on himself.

For Mr. Cornelius, the words of entertainer Ethel Waters, “Today or any day that phone might ring and bring good news,” must no longer have ringed true.

“The problem,” psychotherapist Virginia Satir wrote, “is thinking that this moment is forever,” the sad moment, the moment we despise our being.


Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to