The Kasandra Perkins/Jovan Belcher tragedy has rocked the world of sports and our society in general. Personally, it has been on my mind ever since I heard of it on Saturday. My heart aches for their families and my heart aches especially for those who witnessed Jovan Belcher take his own life. This tragedy is causing many of us to pause and consider mental/emotional health overall but particularly in the black community and among black men.
The incident caused me to reflect on an activity that I facilitated with some young black men on campus. It was a simple activity commonly used in counseling sessions to help a person identify his/her support network. The young men were asked to fill in the blanks for the following:
1. I call _____________ if I need a ride to the store.
2. I call ______________ if I need a ride home.
3. ______________is from my hometown/state.
4. I call _____________ when I want to hang out and have fun.
5. When I have good news to share (personal or academic), I call _____________.
6. When I need a pep talk or encouragement, I talk to _______________.
7. If I miss a class, I can catch up with _____________. (list one person per class)
8. If I am struggling academically, _____________ can help me.
9. If I am struggling academically, I can find help in ___________dept(s) on campus.
10. If I am struggling personally, I can find help in ___________ dept(s) on campus.
11. The first person/dept I would contact to help me find an internship is _________.
12. My academic advisor is _______________.
13. I am involved or interested in _________________ organization/club.
14. I feel comfortable talking to____________ (advisor, instructor, TA, other university professional) about what is going on with me.
When I created the worksheet, I randomly selected statements and the order of the statements. However, I was surprised at how many of the students were not able to fill in the blanks after the fourth question. I expected some responses to be more thought-provoking than others. I expected some of them not to know certain campus resources. What I did not expect though was the high numbers of empty blanks for personal support. It was an eye-opening and heart breaking exercise. At the same time, it was not surprising considering what I know anecdotally about our men and the culture of manhood overall. Yet I was hoping that these college students who had already beaten the odds against them to once again disprove what is said about them. I wanted them particularly to be able to complete statements 5, 6, 10 and 14. I knew they had the academic potential to do well. If they were not successful it would be most likely due to a personal circumstance versus an academic one. In my mind, if they had a personal support system identified and readily accessible then I knew they were going to be just fine. However, progressing through the worksheet became more and more sobering. Thankfully, the group of professionals in attendance volunteered to be a part of these students' support system. We reiterated that we were there for them and happy to support them. We emphasized confidentiality and assured them of no judgment. At the end of the session, I left feeling much more hopeful than I felt midway through the exercise.
While details have yet to emerge about what led to the tragic deaths of Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins, I think we all have a pretty good sense as to what could have prevented this tragedy. From a clinical perspective, we need to increase our awareness of the resources available to assist with the diagnosis and treatment of certain disorders and illnesses. We need to remove the stigma associated with mental and emotional health concerns. Having said that I do not know if a disorder/illness either diagnosed or undiagnosed contributed to this tragedy. I do know that it could have occurred absent of an actual condition. I also know that we are seeing more and more the vulnerability of our men. Unfortunately that vulnerability is manifesting in unhealthy, and in this case tragic, ways. It is becoming more and more evident that our men need a safe place to fall and assurance of unconditional support to get through and overcome all that concerns them.