J. Russell Fugett, PMP
It was 3 AM on a spring Saturday night in 2006 or 2007. My phone rang in my Northwest Washington, DC apartment. On the other end was my best friend Larry‘s younger brother calling from Florida. His words were rushed. His tone was urgent and he sounded somewhat frightened. He asked me if I could call Larry. I’m pretty sure I had to ask him to repeat the scenario at least once, maybe twice. Apparently, Larry had taken their car after an argument, in what we would later recognize was a manic episode. Larry wasn’t picking up his phone and no one knew where he was. Once I woke up enough to understand what was happening, I called Larry. Thank God he picked up.
I could hear through the phone that Larry was in tears. I asked where he was. In hindsight this was probably not the best question, but the best I could come up with due to the urgency of the situation. Larry gave me his location. I asked if he was OK and he said he was. I told him that we were worried about him and just wanted him to go back home and go to sleep. I told him his brother was angry, but mostly scared, and wanted him to come back. The conversation wasn’t more than 3 minutes. A few hours later, I would learn that Larry had returned home and all was well.
I recall beginning to be somewhat aware of Larry having mental health issues before this, but this is the benchmark episode of what has been a 15-year journey off and on with my dear friend; someone who I consider my brother. Through this journey I have prayed, cried, and prayed some more, and by the grace of God have been able to show up for my friend the best way I could.
My friendship with Larry started when we were little boys, as our parents all attended George Washington University Law school in DC. Our parents both divorced when we were extremely young and my mother and his father dated very briefly following the divorces. We often joked that we were almost really legally brothers. We both ended up in high school together at Georgetown Prep and would help co-found the Black Student Union there.
During my sophomore year I ended up having 2 knee surgeries and Larry, living nearby with his father, would regularly pick me up and take me to school. The following year in the second game of the football season, Larry, the starting running back on our ranked high school football team, was tackled from behind and blew out his knee. Ironically I would have the chance to return the favor, picking him up and taking him to school many mornings. Our friendship and bond grew through our time together in high school into our years in college. He would attend Tufts University in Boston. I, being a year behind him in school, ended up 100 miles down the road at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. He would become active and assume a leadership position in the Black Student Union. My first year at Trinity, I would do the same. He joined student government and became a vice president and I would do the same. During the spring of my sophomore year, his junior year, we both ran for student government president and won. We were student government presidents at our schools at the same time! Crazy!
Needless to say, it was a fun time to be in college. I would often visit Tufts just to get away from the bubble of my small college and see my friends including some of our fellow high school classmates. In return, Larry and his friends would often journey down to Trinity sometimes piled five-deep in his two-door Honda. We’d party and hang out into the night and pass out on each other's dorm room floor. We’d get up and go to brunch the next morning to laugh about the night before and share notes on the student government issues of the day on our campuses. Later that year, Larry shared with me an idea for what would become one the most successful nonprofit organizations for political service: United Leaders. The following year, he was nice enough to grant me acceptance into the first class of the summer program. After I graduated Trinity, I spent the summer in Boston hanging out at the Harvard Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government and enjoying two paid internships, free housing and meals, and intimate dinners and lessons from some of the best and most well known political leaders of the time. After the summer, I moved in with Larry, and he helped me get my first job after college. He would apply to the Kennedy School where he would attend and later graduate. I would return home to Maryland.
After completing his masters at Harvard, Larry began working at a prestigious consulting firm. After a year or so he began regularly asking for my advice, as he was dissatisfied with his career path and wanted to make a very different choice and pivot into music. I encouraged him to go for it if that's what he thought he should do. I thought Larry could do whatever he put his mind to. In hindsight, I sometimes wonder if I gave him terrible advice, but I now realize it probably wouldn’t have mattered as his mental health began to deteriorate. Larry is a hero to so many of us who knew him from Georgetown Prep, Tufts, and Harvard. He is generous, charismatic, charming, and brilliant. Some called him the next Cory Booker.
The last 2½ years have been particularly hard, as it seems that my friend's health has taken a turn for the worse. His father died last spring and it seems to have triggered an ongoing manic state. As his mother recently put it Larry had five bad years, 8 pretty good years, and is now going on three more bad years. During those good years, Larry twice worked on the Obama campaign, advised and consulted for a number of Florida based nonprofits, and was an advocate for mental health; writing this article for the Huffington post in 2016, in which he told his story. Larry’s diagnosis of being bipolar certainly has an ongoing impact. Thank God he is still alive and I hold out hope that somehow, someway he will return to health.
Larry’s story and his diagnosis is representative of one aspect of the challenges of addressing Black mental health. Another more painful epidemic that the Black Community is currently experiencing is that of suicide.
Former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst recently died by suicide. This is someone I knew and had followed since she became Miss USA. Brilliant, beautiful and fierce, I saw my daughters in her. An attorney by trade who stepped away from the legal profession to pursue the Miss USA competition, Cheslie and what she represented was powerful. We also recently learned of the death of actor Regina King’s son, Ian Alexander, Jr. I’ve long been a fan of Regina King but was unaware of her son who, as a young man under 30, is in a high risk category. Suicide Prevention Resource Center tells us that the suicide rate for Black men is 4 times that of Black Women.
When you zero in on children, the trends are more startling. A recent article in Scientific American tells us “that Black children between the ages of five and 12 are about twice as likely to die by suicide as white children of the same age.” We also learn that “more than 2.5 times as many Black boys died by suicide as Black girls, but the annual increase among girls—6.6 percent—was more than twice what it was for boys.” A recent Time Magazine piece entitled What We Misunderstand About Suicide Among Black Americans tells us that:
The assumption that suicide can be addressed in universal ways is one problem. Systemic racism also plays a significant role in the failures of suicide prevention. It shapes who has access to quality mental health services, and other social resources such as education, quality housing, and employment, as well as who is exposed to violence, unemployment, hunger, abuse and other chronic stressors that compromise mental health and development over the course of a person’s life.
In addition to trying to help my friend Larry, I also think of my daughter Paige who, at age 7, struggles with anxiety at times and has experienced racism from a classmate.
It has been painful to deal with mental health: that of my friend, my family, and even my own. I’m not an expert on mental health but I have learned much as I’ve worked to stand in the gap for people I love. I read a number of articles and white papers as I prepared to write this and one thing was clear: We must find the courage. We must find the courage to pay attention, check in on loved ones, be available to listen, and, if we’re able to, get help and advocate for our own mental health. We must also have the courage to advocate for better health care and overall better quality of life for Black people. We must speak up and advocate to change systems of racism and the violent stressors. We must have the courage to address misogyny and sexism in our society and culture that impact Black Women. The Black community can’t afford to suffer in silence any longer and we can’t allow those that we love to do the same.
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