Commentary

In memory of Dr. Carl Compton Bell


 

It was a simple message in the body of an email: “A strong voice in and for psychiatry is now silent.”

Dr. Altha J. Stewart, immediate past president of the American Psychiatric Association

Dr. Altha J. Stewart

That is how I shared the news of the passing of Carl Compton Bell, MD, with the leadership of the American Psychiatric Association and what I think Carl would have approved be shared. Although he was a member of APA, he was never interested in the trappings of leadership there or any other organizations of which he was a longtime member, really. He preferred to “do the work” and was known to not suffer fools who were in it to promote themselves. He was always ready, willing, and able to offer guidance or assistance in your work and never failed to have an opinion on what else you needed to do. Some of my favorite memories of Carl are the talks he initiated at the drop of a hat where he “dropped some knowledge” about what he was doing or what you should be doing.

Upon hearing of his death, I described him to someone as fearless, unapologetic, smart, and ready to advocate for black people at the drop of one of the many hats he wore over the years. In fact, his decades of wardrobes is one the other things many of us will remember – the CMHC baseball cap with the “Stop Black on Black” crime T-shirt, the Obama cap paired with an assortment of message T-shirts (depending on what issue he was focused on at the time), and, most recently, the longer hair sticking out from under the wide brim leather cowboy hat with the highway patrol polarized sunglasses.

Whether at the podium presenting or standing in the back of the room, he was a presence, an obvious powerful force in that room. And whether it was the Surgeon General or an audience at the Carter Center, the message was consistent and powerful. An international researcher, clinician, teacher, and author of more than 500 books, chapters, and articles, he spent most of his career directly addressing issues of violence and HIV prevention, misdiagnosis of psychiatric disorders in African Americans, and the psychological effects on children exposed to violence.

Honoring the legacy of Carl Bell is about more than how we can all follow in his footsteps and more about being like him – unapologetically fearless and focused on improving the health, mental health, and overall well-being of black people. He was very clear that his talents, his skills, his focus – whether it was clinical care, training, or research – would be on black people, and he was often amused at the response, mostly from white people, when he stated clearly that this was his focus. He was often challenged by them, and his response as I frequently heard him say was: “I care about black people; I want to help black people.” I think he basically felt that, if it was good for black people, it would also benefit everyone else.

So, there’s a lesson for us as we heap on the well-deserved accolades on him and his life’s work, and reminisce about our personal encounters and experiences with him over the decades. As we reflect on what he meant to each of us as a friend, a colleague, and a history maker, I think the lesson is that if Carl were here today, he’d say: “OK, that’s all good, thank you for the nice words but what are you doing for black people today? What are you doing to improve their health and life condition today?” I think if we really want to honor his legacy and continue his work, we must be as fearless and focused as he was as we follow his lead and carry on with the work that promotes mental health in the black community. And when we are challenged for wanting to do this work, we must be just as unapologetic and thoughtful as he was, even channeling our own “Carl Bell” moment if needed. As a lifelong martial arts practitioner, I will end with this: “The bamboo which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.” Carl was the bamboo, and he’s with the Ancestors now, encouraging us to do the work and bend not break. Rest, my brother; job well done!

Dr. Stewart is immediate past president of the American Psychiatric Association.

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