February 3rd, 2012
06:18 PM ET

Opinion: Terrie M. Williams: Depression does not discriminate

Editor's Note: Terrie M. Williams is the author of "Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting" and the co-founder of The Stay Strong Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter @terriewilliams.

By Terrie M. Williams, Special to CNN

Trouble in mind, that's true.
I have almost lost my mind.
Life ain't worth livin.
Sometimes I feel like dyin'.

–"Trouble in Mind," a 1926 Blues standard by Richard M. Jones

We are all mourning the loss this week of "Soul Train" creator and cultural icon, Don Cornelius. An American success story, Don left us with a 35-year history lesson in business acumen, cultural exportation, and community uplift. We need only call the first names of the greats who performed on Soul Train’s multi-colored stage since it premiered in 1970 - Stevie, Gladys, Tina, Aretha, Michael - while we pop locked along in front of the TV screen in our polyester silk with a hair full of Afro Sheen. Thanks to traditional and social media, we’ve been able to share and celebrate these memories from friend to friend, generation to generation, and across the world. It was, indeed, the “hippest trip in America.”

That’s all good. We should take some time to measure and celebrate Don’s legacy. Don dreamed big. He changed our lives and, more importantly, changed overnight how the world saw us. We cannot say enough about this pioneer. The doors he opened. The life he lived. That’s easy. What’s not easy is to say, is how and why he died. Yes, he hid his demons well. But, clearly they were there because this 75-year-old icon with a body of work most of us will never achieve, chose to end his own life with a gunshot to the head.

“Private. Guarded. All business.” These are reoccurring words that people close to Don - his son, his long-term business partners, former dancers and employees - have used to describe him. I experienced that myself on those few occasions when I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with him in person. Though reports say he didn’t seem despondent or upset in the weeks before his suicide, this silent warrior was clearly suffering. We don’t know for sure if it was a long-standing disenchantment with the entertainment industry, residual pain from a brain surgery, a bitter divorce, or all of the above that led to his obviously depressed mental state. Said his son Tony yesterday on "CBS This Morning", “My father was extremely private. Unfortunately, when you’re a private person, you keep things inside.” And, that “people all over the world” is what this is all about. We did not have to lose Don this way. This silence – which kept us safe during slavery times – is now killing us. Depression is real. It is deadly. And, it does not discriminate.

Even in the age of Obama, it is still hella’ hard to be a Black man in America. To be successful, you have to be twice as smart and work 10 times as hard. Our young men are trained to be tough, "suck it up", “be a man", "never let them see you sweat" and definitely, "don’t let them see you cry." But, like all of us, these men are human, flawed, complicated, impacted by their unresolved wounds, scars and personal pain. Some passed onto them by parents, others by influence, incident or circumstance.

As a mental health practitioner and activist, and an individual who manages her own depression, I know first-hand that the effects of depression are real. Also, as a veteran public relations counselor in the entertainment industry, I can also tell you that people in this high-pressure business are more predisposed to clinical depression. It is a confounding disease that not only destabilizes the life of the individual who experiences it, but the lives of those they care about. Sadly, most in the African-American community don’t even know what clinical depression is - what it looks like, sounds like or feels like.

According to the World Health Organizations, by the year 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of death behind heart disease for everyone. For African Americans, the stigma coupled with disparate access to mental health care and a lingering, troubled economy have led to increasing rates of depression in our community. A survey by the Mental Health America revealed that only one-third of all persons with major depression ever seek treatment with African-Americans and persons over 65 years old the least likely to seek professional help. Both were applicable to Don.

In today’ society, success is more and more defined by external achievement - what you own, who you know, how much you make. We admire these select and gifted few who lift us up and pull the rest of us forward. Unfortunately, the successful are practiced at wearing the “mask” of wellness better than most. For them, the fall-out from the stigma of depression keeps them evermore silent. The rest of us in the beehive are less-practiced, but none-the-less suffering the same. We keep our head down, keep it moving, and hold on, all while suffering from untreated trauma, wounded psyches and troubled minds. This suffering is mostly never confronted nor talked about because we ‘don’t do that.’ We self-medicate with the drug of our choice, go to church, or both. We lash out, act out, curse out, tune out or worse. And, the silence gives birth to depression, and the depression sometimes - as it seemingly did in Don’s case - gives way to suicide.

Sadly, Don was silent until the end, though his son, Tony, said he did call – a whispered plea for help, perhaps. He did not leave a note. Some would call that control, discipline, pride. It is none of those. It was a violent and sad end for our beloved warrior. It was preventable and it was unnecessary. We need to let our men know – whether he is a mogul, a musician, or a math teacher - that it is OK for them, for all of us, to name and share our pain. We must re-define, what it means to be “strong.” We must take care of our mental health…and get a “check-up from the neck up.”

The best way to spot depression and prevent suicide among those you love - this includes you - is to identify risk factors and signs early on. They can include a persistent sadness, hopelessness, guilt, lack of interest in normal activities, trouble with memory, changes in sleeping and eating patterns and thoughts of death. Consider also visiting www.healthyminds.org by the American Psychiatric Association, which offers an on-line mental health check-up and other resources.

Don reportedly once said that, “It’s always a pleasure to find something that matters.” Perhaps in the end, he couldn’t find that one more thing that did. Our childhood memories aside, the way he died does matter, and we should remember this, as well. My heartfelt love and prayers go out to Don’s family and friends.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Terrie Williams.

Posted by
Filed under: Black in America • Health • How we live • Race
soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. tom

    Nice headline.....just another way to twist in race. So many times we are all told that we are all the same except color and then someone writes an article how depression doesn't discriminate because someone is black. People are people yet somehow this african american author has to show that race does matter and keep that racism thing going. Nice job.

    February 6, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Name*Charlene n Va

    An insensitive reply! Depression is very real n is NOT 2 b taken 'LIGHTLY'!!

    February 6, 2012 at 9:24 am | Report abuse |
  3. Albro

    You say that depression does not discriminate? THANK HEAVENS! FINALLY ONE THING THE CANT BLAME ON "'DEM WHITE FOLK"!

    February 6, 2012 at 7:31 am | Report abuse |
  4. Name*Larry in Alabama

    I have had my own experience with clinical depression. A friend got me in to see a therapist in a few days. Sadly, He took his own life later. What kept me going was God's still small voice, 'What of those you might help? What will they do?'. I can't count how many times one person made a difference.

    February 6, 2012 at 6:23 am | Report abuse |
  5. Ezo

    It would be most interesting to find out what medication he was taking for his illness. The side effects of some of these do include depression.

    February 6, 2012 at 12:09 am | Report abuse |
  6. unowhoitsme

    There's only ONE of everyone that exists, which makes EVERYONE unique, rare, and valuable. We ALL have a purpose here with a different talent to contribute to this world. Reaching out and sharing yourself to others, without society's rank, loving and helping people along the way is what it's ALL about. We are all equal. Money and status has nothing to do with real life. Helping someone across the street and taking the time to lend a helping hand with your God given talent is what's it all about. YOU MATTER! Forget "success"...and start loving the people (strangers) around you at the store, the park, the gas station....everywhere you go lend a helping hand. The world would be a better place and there'd be no depression, because NO ONE would fee rejected. Start with you!

    February 5, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Kathy

    I loved this article; to those who are misinterpreting the author, thinking she is stating that this is a 'black issue' that is not the point. What she says is so true and that is: for some, yes this includes the back community, the issue of mental health is not on the radar screen. It is considered, shameful or weak: "that only one-third of all persons with major depression ever seek treatment with African-Americans and persons over 65 years old the least likely to seek professional help" And with so many more desperate things on the 'survival list' this issue unfortunately is not much talked about. I loved soul train and I am sorry to see Don C. go like this..... Love, Peace & Souuul DC.

    February 5, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  8. mslman71

    According to the CDC the suicide rate for white males is 2.5x that of black males (non-hispanic). According to the rulings of the SCOTUS that means that there is, by definition, a systematic policy of racism [against white males] that leads to the disparate suicide rate. Similarly, if we conclude based on previous articles of income and educational disparities between the races that are extrapolated back to racism by the very existence of a difference then we have to conclude the same for suicide.

    So, in the end, I argue that the to at least some extent, suicide as a manifestation of depression, does in fact discriminate and must be racist.

    February 5, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • mslman71


      http://ww w.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/statistics/rates02.html

      (remove space in ww w to follow link)

      February 5, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
  9. rod


    February 5, 2012 at 1:48 am | Report abuse |
  10. ruth fassett

    i need help and i dont have any friends any body i live in thalleassee florida.

    February 4, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe


      If you lived in Tallahassee, Ruth, you'd probably know how to spell its name correctly.

      February 5, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
  11. ruth fassett

    drs.dont ccare i keep telling minr and he tells me to take a couple asprin. i love live but sometimes it s-k. there should be a side where all of us depressed could talk.

    February 4, 2012 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      If you need help call Social Services.

      If you feel suicidal call the Suicide Prevention Hotline, it's listed in the Telephone Directory in your city. They will help you with your problems.

      February 5, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      If you need help call Social Services.

      If you feel suicidal call the Suicide Prevention Hotline, it's listed in the Telephone Directory in your city. They will help.

      February 5, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
      • Chartreuxe

        Duplicate comment failed to show up even with page reload. Sorry.

        February 5, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • monah

      I find it hard to believe that a doctor told you to take 2 aspirins for your depression. Are you just being a sarcastic troll or is there really something wrong with you? There are many support groups available. Call 211, they will help you find appropriate help unless you are a troll. I don't believe there are support groups for trolls but there probably should be one.

      February 5, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. MissusPowell

    It is extremely important that those of us who have depression reach out to others who have also sufferred depression, and vice versa. We ALL need to tell our stories. We ALL need to educate ourselves and others. AND MOST OF ALL we need to support each other and the many families and friends who suffer with those loved. It takes courage to ask for help. It takes knowledge, too, to know action is needed. THERE IS NO SHAME IN HAVING DEPRESSION!! You may hear "Big Boys don't cry..." but know this "...REAL MEN DO." And it is OK!! Truly, it is. Depression can run in a family, too, and if untreated is not clearly understood, so seeking help outside the family may be necessary. DO WHAT YOU NEED TO DO TO GET THE HELP YOU NEED! Learn all you can and pass it on.

    February 4, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rhae


    February 4, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. bre

    Not sure why people are missing this but in the black or African-American community no one speaks of depression or suicide. Rarely does anyone admit they have it, let alone get treated for it. The signs of depression in this community are said to be "going through something" as if it will pass by itself. If someone keeps their emotions to themselves that's perfectly fine, no one shares those type of "issues". If you do talk about it you're told to "pray about it", "work it out" or "to hold on". Mr. Cornelius probably had a lot going on internally, it's so sad that he couldn't find peace of mind. My condolences to your family and thanks for the memories.

    February 4, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      That kind of advice is great for low feelings lasting 6 weeks or less. However, depression persists and one should seek medical help when those feelings remain.

      There's no reason to suffer and depression is certainly not a reason for self-murder as long as there's help available.

      February 4, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Grandma

    Why is everything/everyone "black" in America a race card? Obviously, "black" authors and "educators" cannot make the grade without playing it! Have another martini!

    February 4, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Billy Z

      Sorry Grandma, you've had enough already – you're cut off...

      February 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  16. BR

    Depression is NOT a race issue nor is it a male issue. It is a HUMAN issue. Young white women get depressed just as do old black men and middle aged Asian gays. Playing the race card has no place here. It is extremely unfortunate when anyone of any age or race or social status suffers or takes their own life from this terrible disease.

    February 4, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Billy Z

      I believe the authors' point was *not* that only certain people can get depression! She's saying that black men are the least likely demographic to recognize it and seek help. Only when the stigma of mental health "problems" is erased (for all groups) there will be equality.

      February 5, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  17. WVHillbilly

    Depression does not discriminate and we need to make the solution be non-discriminatory. Mental health needs to be a part of any healthcare program for all people, not just the upper classes!

    February 4, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
    • nubianchanteuse

      The author is NOT saying depression is a Black issue!!!!! She is saying that Blacks are least likely to identify and get treatment for it!!!!

      February 5, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • peridot2

      You're absolutely right, WVHillbilly. Thank you for that.

      April 15, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Ojosan

    My Prayers go to his family and all those who loved him as a trailblazer, trendsetter, and an excellent example of what African-Americans are capable of if they just persist and don't believe the naysayers. I think depression can strike anyone at anytime. There maybe some different ways African American males deal with this due to the fact culturally, they are taught to be tough, macho, and not weak. Regardless, none of this will bring Don back. We can only learn from the faults of others and try to move forward. Don R.I.P.......

    February 4, 2012 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  19. Rhae

    We love U Don!

    February 4, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
  20. ja

    Don,Thanks for EVERYTHING !

    February 4, 2012 at 9:10 am | Report abuse |
  21. Lonnie Trevino

    I agree that depression sufferers too often suffer in silence, but I disagree that this is a "black" issue. I have found as a man who suffers from depression and who attempted to take my own life on one occasion that it is a male issue. From our earliest memories, we have these thoughts programmed into us that men don't cry, men don't slow down, men don't express sadness, etc. As a result, men suffer in silence until they break and something tragick occurs. I believe that a public announcement campaign that would teach our families and friends to watch for the signs of depression would be of tremendous assistance in spotting this dread deadly disease early on. A point our author made well. Although, in many cases, there is no cure for depression, there is at least treatment available which can aid the sufferer in managing his/her feelings of despair to the point at which they can live life on a more normal level. I hope Mr. Cornelius' passing will not be in vain but will be a catalyst for some in the African-American community to look more deeply into the problem, thereby offering help not only to their brothers, but to the rest of us who suffer as well.

    February 4, 2012 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Men are under-served in this area of health. Whatever gets out the message.

      February 4, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kathy

      I loved this article; to those who are misinterpreting the author, thinking she is stating that this is a 'black issue' that is not the point. What she says is so true and that is: for some, yes this means the back community, the issue of mental health is not on the radar screen. It is considered, shameful or weak. Of course things are changing and no it does not apply to the entire black community. But with so many more desperate things on the 'survival list' this issue unfortunately is not much talked about. I loved soul train and I am sorry to see Don C. go like this..... Love, Peace & Souuul

      February 5, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Angieg

      While I agree with you that men of all races are less likely than women to seek help for depression, I think African Americans in general are less likely to seek help for mental illness and African American men are even less likely to seek help. As a black woman I had depression issues and my friends and my man gave me the "side eye" when I began to see a therapist. Culturally, I think black folks believe you should be strong enough to handle "your business". I mean when you have ancestors who survived slavery, Jim Crow, segregation etc how are you going to claim you're depressed? You have a college education, good career, home, car, family and fat bank account. What do you have to be depressed about? I think there is a stigma in our community of not being strong enough to handle what this world throws at you rather than recognizing that depression is an illness that can hit anyone at anytime.

      February 6, 2012 at 12:55 am | Report abuse |
  22. Spyder D

    I assumed there was a deprssion issue. Mr. Cornelius allowed me to dream that I too could one day grace his stage, and was obviously a major influence in my career as a artist/producer. So sorry he had to end such a triumphant life in such a sad way. RIP

    February 4, 2012 at 5:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Few who commit suicide is in their right mind, Spyder.

      February 4, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
      • Chartreuxe

        Edit: Few who commit suicide *are* in their right mind.

        February 4, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  23. UniQue


    February 4, 2012 at 3:10 am | Report abuse |
  24. tamara reina

    Depression did hit home,so it is time to heal the process and move on

    February 4, 2012 at 2:54 am | Report abuse |
  25. Maria

    My thoughts and prayers to his family. His son is right – depression does not discriminate. I have been clinically depressed twice in my life. The first time, I was completely unaware I was depressed. Despite having a wonderful career and surrounding my self with warm, caring family and friends, I still could not shake the anxiety or the immense sadness that engulfed me. There was no reason to be depressed, I figured. No matter how great I knew my life was, I couldn't enjoy or experience the emotions that were supposed to come with it. This loss of control sent me deeper into the shadows of this disease. I did not understand depression until I experienced it. I'm saddened that Don Cornelius did not get the treatment he needed. Suffering silently is terrible thing to endure and may be perpetuated by the fact that many cultures attach stigmas to mental illness. Until these notions are lifted, can treatment for depression be actively sought. It may have been too late for Don Cornelius, but it doesn't have to be for others.

    February 3, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
  26. myopinion

    I am white, and loved Soul Train, Don Cornelius, the musician, and the dancing. I never, ever had a single thought about race.
    RIP Don with Peace, Love and Soul.

    February 3, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Me

    I don't know how much race makes a difference here, even though it does to the writer. I think of this as a senior citizen who was depressed. The fact he was so successfull in his life and a senior makes it hard for me to understand why he would commit suicide. I work with seniors in volunteer work, and I don't see many of them as depressed.
    It's very sad that this man ended his life early, when he had so much he could still contribute to society. Prayers to his family.

    February 3, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Pain is pain. It's a shame no one recognised the symptoms and suggested he get help. Let this be a lesson to us all: pay attention to your friends. If they tell you they are hurting, encourage them to get help. Take them to a doctor. Go the extra mile and do the best you can.

      February 4, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |