Carl Maxey, who challenged convention in life, challenged one more in death.
By taking his own life, the prominent attorney did something almost unheard of among African Americans of his generation. Historically, the people whose ancestors survived slavery and racism have been remarkably resistant to suicide.
“We characterize ourselves as being able to get through most things because of faith, strong community and our relationships with the church,” said Kenya Napper Bello, a suicide prevention activist in Atlanta.
But to the alarm of researchers nationwide, that’s changing. In the last decade, suicide rates jumped 300 percent among African Americans ages 10 to 14, and 164 percent among those ages 15 to 24.
The Centers for Disease Control report that if the trend continues, suicide rates among black men could exceed those of whites by the millennium. Among the contributing factors: increasing rates of depression, access to firearms, broken families and fragmented communities.
That makes the death of a successful community leader even more troubling in the signal it may send to a vulnerable young person and the questions it leaves with survivors: Why did Carl Maxey kill himself?
What could the community have done to prevent it?
“I think we as a people need to look at that and ask what are we doing and not doing,” said Doris Andrews, who with her husband, the Rev. C.W. Andrews, was a Maxey friend.
“I still don’t believe it happened. But it has and it can. This lets us know we’re not exempt.”
In her national newsletter “Black Men Don’t Commit Suicide,” Napper Bello works to expose the myths surrounding suicide and depression among African Americans.
Two years ago, her successful, respected husband, just entering the field of international business, jumped from the 32nd floor of an Atlanta hotel.
As hard as it was to understand, Napper Bello knew it was equally hard for someone considered a hero and mentor to confess his own inadequacies.
“I can understand why my husband did not ask for help but everyone needs to be able to ask for help,” she said. “That’s a problem many black men have - they want to handle things on their own.”
Although women of all color attempt suicide more often, men of all color are more successful.
Among white men over 55, suicide is “a quiet epidemic,” killing older men at a rate four times that of teenagers, said Paul Quinnett, a Spokane clinical psychologist, author and national expert on suicide.
Professional men are at particular risk. According to Quinnett, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that compared to other occupations, lawyers, psychologists, pharmacists and dentists are at a higher risk of suicide especially as they age and reach the retirement.
“Even in great psychological pain and distress (high-status males) are reluctant to seek help,” Quinnett said.
As men age, they may face failing health and the humiliation associated with those losses. In retirement, they may feel they’re losing the purpose and meaning of life. Often, they suffer clinical depression.
Maxey was nearing retirement but survivors and experts say it is unfair to point to a single issue in a very complex act.
“It’s helpful to understand that each person makes that decision for reasons we’ll never understand and never know because the reasons go with them,” Quinnett said.
By its very unexpectedness, suicide becomes a greater tragedy than a natural death, one people take more personally and one that can leave the community feeling powerless to predict.
A month before he shot himself, Maxey spoke to his old friend and colleague Kenneth MacDonald about his cataract and high blood pressure, about handling retirement.
“Was it a warning?” MacDonald asked mourners at Maxey’s memorial service. Throughout the last week, people have replayed their last conversations with the popular trial attorney.
Was it a warning?
“While no one can predict it before, afterward 110 percent of the people will feel guilt for failing to recognize what was happening,” Quinnett said.
“Even if there were signs, they don’t appear on everyone’s radar as sure-fire indications this individual is considering self destruction.”
People considering suicide may never betray their thoughts.
In the final days and hours of a suicide crisis people enter a state that psychologists liken to a tunnel. In that tunnel, they cannot appreciate the consequences of their actions and lose perspective on their life and accomplishments.
According to unpublished research, 10 percent of suicide victims the Navy studied gave no warning signs and were able to keep a brave face until the moment of their death.
Men are extremely good at masking their pain. In a 1994 Newsweek article, author William Styron wrote of eating dinner with friends, chatting amiably before going to the restroom where he considered suicide. Later, the friends said they thought he was behaving normally.
“The monumental aplomb I exhibited is testimony to the almost uniquely interior nature of the pain … a pain that is all but indescribable and therefore to everyone but the sufferer almost meaningless.”
It may be normal for people to feel guilt for not seeing that pain, Napper Bello said.
“Ultimately, no matter how much people love and respect someone, you can’t transfer the will to live.”
Survivors can, however, live differently.
Among the accolades and tributes paid to Maxey last week, came words not previously spoken.
“Why didn’t I tell him I loved him when he was alive?” an anguished George Raveling asked at Maxey’s memorial. “Why didn’t I send him flowers when he was alive? Why didn’t I tell him the world would not be the same without him?”
In the aftermath of suicide, there is an inevitable re-evaluation of the preciousness of life.
“Funerals have always brought people together, always brought relationships closer,” said the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “I think this is a situation that is getting people to think about doing what they need to do.”
Cherie Rodgers’s daughter, Leigh, at 17 has already lost a close friend to suicide. This week she wanted to talk about why Maxey died. Rodgers told her: “Everyone has a cross. We may not see it, but to them, it’s humongous.”
She talked about how much he had overcome.
“We need to celebrate his life and use this opportunity to learn something about the nature of why people take their own lives,” said Quinnett, who is working to get suicide declared a national problem to get the research and attention it deserves.
The July day Maxey died, an estimated 82 other Americans took their lives, leaving about 500 family members behind. An average of 83 others have died by their own hand every day since.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: More information For more information on suicide call crisis hotlines at 838-4428 in Spokane or 208-769-1406 in Coeur d’Alene; or the Spokane Regional Health District Suicide Prevention program at 324-1473. A support group, Survivors of a Loved One’s Suicide, meets at 7 p.m. on the first and third Wednesday of each month at the American Red Cross, 315 W. Nora.
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