I was only a small child, but I remember the call like it just happened today.
It was Sunday night, and my granny called to tell my mom the horrible news that rocked our family: My Uncle Colton was dead.
“Mama, it’s not true,” I heard my mom say.
But it was.
My mother’s 28-year-old brother whom she loved with her entire being had checked himself into a mental hospital. Thirty minutes after talking with the doctor, he hung himself.
His story was like countless other Americans'. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in this country and mental illness is a risk factor.
My uncle struggled with schizophrenia for years. My family had struggled to help him find relief from his living hell. The burden of that illness lead to bouts of depression for him. My uncle was highly intelligent, served in the Army, attended college, played the guitar, excelled at swimming … and was mentally ill until the day he could not take it anymore.
Mental illness, depression and suicide are not often talked about in the black community. That must change. I can say though, my family has never been ashamed of my uncle or of how he died. For the first time in years, I asked my parents to revisit the time of his death and talk about his illness, hoping someone reading our conversation can relate to our experiences. What struck me -- all these years later, my mother still has hope for others suffering from mental illness, even after losing her brother in such a painful way. Here is that conversation.
Richelle Carey: What were the first signs you remember of Uncle Colton acting different?
Mom: He was only a few years older than me, so we were in high school at the same time. I remember in high school he would isolate himself. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but looking back I realized that’s when it started. I just thought he was a bit odd, which isn’t always a bad thing.
RC: When did you realize it was something more?
Mom: After high school, he decided to join the Army. I thought it would be good for him to go away, a good opportunity. He couldn’t fit in though. He couldn’t focus. It was the Army that sent him to the hospital where he was first diagnosed. Mama and Daddy drove to San Antonio to visit him in hospital. I remember that. He was given an honorable discharge and came back home.
RC: When he came home, he began years of treatment on and off?
Mom: Yes, he was in psychotherapy.
Dad: Your Mom and I spent many a night visiting him in the Psych locked unit at Ben Taub Hospital where he had been committed on several occasions, going to small religious services with him to provide some support. Granny and PaPa visited him too. Medicine only made him feel strange even though it usually tempered his irrational behavior. But he would then stop taking his meds.
RC: How did his illness affect his day to day life? As a kid I just remember him coming to the house being my fun, funny, kind uncle. I never knew anything was truly wrong.
Dad: Colton was highly motivated, attended Texas Southern University and HCC, held a job and had his own apartment for a time. But as with many of the mentally ill, a minor altercation at work is usually just enough stress to push them into a state of erratic neurotic or psychotic behavior. Then the thought that he was unable to keep a job or to take care of himself only adds more stress to an already unstable person.
Mom: He didn't seem to be able to make a commitment to stay with a project and see it through. He would start a job didn't like it and just up and quit. He didn’t like conflict and was always running to avoid it.
RC: Were there signs he was suicidal?
Mom: He didn’t show up for Christmas at our house before he killed himself. I was worried and kept calling him. He said he was just tired. That was the first time I thought he might be suicidal. Being completely honest, a small part of me was relieved at first that he didn’t come because it had become so draining to deal with him. It was so difficult to communicate with him. Then I started to worry and call.
RC: Did she ever feel like you could have stopped him from committing suicide?
Mom: I knew logically I couldn’t have, but I felt guilty for a long time. He checked himself into a mental hospital, saw the doctor and hung himself 30 minutes later in the hospital. I know I couldn’t have stopped him. But I did feel like if I were a better sister, maybe I could have stopped him. If I had pushed harder to get him over at Christmas, maybe he would still be alive.
RC: Do you think Uncle Colton would still be alive if he were be diagnosed with mental illness now as opposed to 30 years ago?
Mom: I absolutely do. Medicines and treatment have come a long way. He wanted to be well. He was so tired of being sick. He told me he didn’t know what was happening with the thoughts and voices and he just wanted it to stop. I remember sitting with him one night saying, “Colton, you want to go to the hospital?” He said, “Lina, I just don’t know what is going on with all these thoughts. I don’t know what is happening with me.”
RC: Were you ever ashamed to say your brother committed suicide? I know I never grew up feeling that way.
Mom: No. No.