Obituaries

Dr. Carl C. Bell

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Dr. Carl C. Bell 

Memorial services recently were held for Dr. Carl C. Bell, a black psychiatrist, based in Chicago. Dr. Bell was a visionary, academic, author, founder and director of a large mental health clinic on Chicago’s South Side that served African Americans.  

Carl C. Bell, MD

He sounded the alarm about Black on Black crime, which receives less extensive media attention than mass shootings by white supremacists but occur with much more regularity and have a devastating effect on how African Americans go about their daily lives. 

Dr. Bell was 71. He lived in Chicago, where he had grown up. He died August 2. Dr. Bell is survived by his ex-wife and three children.  

Dr. Bell co-founded the Community Mental Health Council 37 years ago. CMHC served nearly 1,000 patients. Most were African American.  

 The agency was one of a number of mental health clinics closed in and around 2012 throughout the state and in Chicago. In Chicago, black aldermen did little or nothing to block the closings of neighborhood mental health clinics located in their wards.   

Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Couchcair closed the city’s mental health clinics’citing as a reason their high operating expense, which was an exaggeration. Couchcair now works in private industry. 

Dr. Bell’s clinic closed in 2012 after the Illinois Department of Human Services cut off funding, citing financial mismanagement 

Although the facility’s doors were locked, patients continued to show up, seeking help. Dr. Bell waited in the parking lot outside the clinic with a laptop computer and a prescription pad to dispense needed medications to waiting patients.  

Mental illness is a major problem in black community, but it is rarely discussed. It is also the subject to misconceptions.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.  

Common mental health disorders among African Americans are depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, suicide and posttraumatic stress disorder. The psychological issues are partly caused by and exacerbated by poverty and racism,  the high jobless rate and rampant police brutality in the black community. 

Blacks who suffer racist blow after racist blow and withhold their feelings are called “strong” a well-worn phrase regularly used by African Americans that masks mental suffering. To some seeking support is a sign of weakness. Others who need and want support often do not know where to find it. 

 Those who seek treatment are too likely to receive inadequate care or they are referred to someone who doesn’t care.  

That’s what happened on December 26, 2015, when Quintonio LeGrier, a 19-year-old college student, who was likely suffering a psychotic break, was murdered by a Chicago cop.  

LeGrier called the police seeking help because he didn’t know where else to go. Instead he got an incompetent black woman police operator who dismissed his concerns and did nothing to help him. She hung up on him several times, but he kept calling back. 

Her refusal to help him set in motion a series of events that led to one of the most tragic events I have ever covered as a reporter. 

Robert Rialmo, a Chicago Police officer, was dispatched to LeGrier’s apartment building. He lived on the second floor and his neighbor Bette Jones, a 55-year-old grandmother, lived on the first floor 

Rialmo shot to death Jones, who opened the front door to let the cop inside the building as she had been instructed to do by police. Rialmo also shot to death Quintonio, claiming the young man charged him swinging a baseball bat. La Grier heard the shots and, he may have been rushing to assist Jones.  

The next day Rev. Jesse Jackson, reporters, neighbors and the curious stood on the building’s front porch and on the sidewalk in front of the building where the deadly shootings occurred. Everyone agreed that mental illness sparked the incident, but no one knew where to get help. I mentioned NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness), but no one from the organization was around. Police suspended the telephone operator who took LeGrier’s call, but the department did not fire her. 

Chicago Alderman Jason C. Ervin said an active mental health care program could have saved both lives. 

Discussion about mental illness in the black community could be on the cusp of changing in the black community.   

Recently, celebrities including rapper Kwanye West and Traji P. Henson, star of the television show “Empire, either have discussed suffering from mental illness or knowing a family member who was suffering from mental illness but not knowing where to go to seek help. Henson testified before the Congressional Black Caucus about mental illness in the African American community.   

Newly elected Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on re-opening neighborhood mental health clinics, including those in Woodlawn and Logan Square, closed by Rahm Emanuel, her predecessor. So far Mayor Lightfoot has not done anything to re-open the clinics, according to a civic group who rated her first 100 days in office.  

Dr. Bell’s clinic closed after the State of Illinois withdrew funding. 

“Over the past several years, the Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health has advanced millions of dollars to Community Mental Health Council in an effort to ensure continuity of care for consumers and to give the company an opportunity to improve its fiscal situation,” said DHS. “CMHC continues to experience serious fiscal mismanagement and eventual insolvency. They have not made a payroll in many months and cancelled health insurance for employees and their families. Therefore, DMH was unable to renew CMHC’s contract for fiscal year 2013.” 

The state’s decision left Dr. Bell incredulous. “I don’t understand. I don’t know how the state can work with us for 37 years, and we were an extraordinarily good partner with them and then they drop us like a bad habit,” he said.  Dr. Bell blamed the clinic’s problems on the state’s slow paying, which caused many problems.  

Dr. Bell wrote a number of books and academic papers. He brought attention to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, criminal justice, multicultural pyschiatry and trauma  and its aftermath. 

Dr. Bell’s death leaves the African-American community with one less advocate committed to addressing mental health in the black community.

 

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