OPED: How racism breeds depression

Tribune News Service
People gather for a news conference near the scene of a shooting in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, March 1, 2016. Authorities say that a police officer fatally shot a man Monday while trying to make an arrest for a felony drug charge. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

It is hard to feel anything but a sense of lost potential over the suicide of MarShawn McCarrel, an Ohio Black Lives Matter activist who shot himself in early February. He led anti-police brutality rallies and initiated a program in Ohio to feed the homeless. Though only 23, McCarrel had already touched many lives.

McCarrel had been homeless; he carried scars from his life. McCarrel said he suffered attacks of fear "whenever I see a badge or police lights." On the day he died, he posted on Facebook: "My demons won today. I'm sorry." His friends and acquaintances blamed depression — fueled in part, no doubt, by the social ills that McCarrel devoted himself to ending.

His death reminds us of the long reach of racism, how it exacerbates stress, hopelessness and mental illness. That racism takes a psychological toll even on people of color who have never been beaten, or wrongfully arrested, is clear from books like Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel "Invisible Man," whose narrator sinks into depression after repeated racist social confrontations.

Blacks and other minorities have for decades exchanged stories of how racism led to ongoing feelings of anger. That anger can lead to noble activism, or a greater appreciation of universal humanity. It can also lead to substance abuse or pervasive depression.

Medical research details the bleak reality. A 2002 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry concluded that Caribbeans, Africans and Asians who had endured racist verbal abuse were three times more likely to suffer from depression or psychosis. Those who had endured a racist attack were five times more likely to suffer from psychosis.

Other studies have shown that the stress from racism substantially increases the risk of heart disease and early death. And the suicide rate among blacks is climbing.

The Black Lives Matter movement has emphasized holistic mental, environmental and economic well-being, even before McCarrel's suicide. Hopefully, the movement will help release people of color from the myth that there is something wrong, or weak, in seeking mental and psychiatric help.

Native American youth between the ages 15 and 24 are particularly susceptible to depression leading to suicide. The suicide statistics for Native youth exceed rates among whites or any other ethnic group. Officials blame the crisis on poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, sexual assault, alcoholism and drug addiction. It's also the sad upshot of forcibly stripping generations of people of a sense of heritage.

MarShawn McCarrel did his best to transform his personal demons into a life led for the greater good. He succeeded in extraordinary ways that should be celebrated. In his memory, we should continue to expand outreach services to minorities with the recognition that mental health is dependent on a world free of prejudice.