Dr. Carl Bell always asked the hard questions


Carl C. Bell, MD, started his career by asking the hard questions that no one dared to ask. His curiosity, courage, and compassion for all communities would lead him to impact the world in ways that few psychiatrists could ever imagine.

Dr. Lorenzo Norris, George Washington University, Washington

Dr. Lorenzo Norris

His accomplishments were many and far-reaching, dating back over 4 decades of service and research. He was a prolific author and researcher, having written more than 400 books, chapters, and articles. His research covered a lot of ground, but four critical areas of focus were childhood trauma, violence prevention, criminal justice reform, and most recently, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

The word “visionary” is frequently overused. But when we apply it to Dr. Carl Bell, the word does not do him justice. If you take a closer look at all four of those areas, you can see a common thread: What are the elements of a society that can tear communities apart?

When I look at Dr. Bell’s research, I see a man with a dedicated vision to addressing each of those elements in systematic way, and a determination to bring the results of that research into his Southside Chicago community in numerous ways, including by serving as president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council, and as director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Dr. Bell was a leader for his patients as well as for black psychiatrists. He was a founding member of Black Psychiatrists of America and served as a mentor in some way to the vast majority of black psychiatrists currently practicing in the country. As a black male psychiatrist, I saw Dr. Bell as a source of inspiration in my career and the standard by which I measured myself. I’m not talking about awards or accomplishments, as Dr. Bell has countless accolades, including most recently, being presented this year with the American Psychiatric Association’s Adolph Meyer Award for Lifetime Achievement in Psychiatric Research and the National Medical Association’s Scroll of Merit. I am referring to Dr. Bell’s willingness to walk away from something he thought was wrong.

For every accolade he won or prestigious committee he served on, I would wager that he declined or stepped way from just as many. Dr. Bell’s character and vision for psychiatry in general, and the mental health of African American communities specifically, would not allow him to pay lip service to agendas that were self-serving, and did not push the field and communities forward.

During his service as an editorial advisory board member for Clinical Psychiatry News, Dr. Bell could always be relied upon to offer an insightful perspective to any discussion, ranging from violence prevention to the social determinants of health and their role in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

What I will remember most about Dr. Bell is his strong character. My guess is that he was never shy about stating the truth to a patient or a president of the United States. He possessed the intellect to back up any of his views while also having the humility of a dedicated community psychiatrist who worked for no other reason than to serve his patients.

When I first met Dr. Bell, he was giving a grand rounds at the George Washington University department of psychiatry. He was wearing a hat during the lecture and a belt with the Superman logo. I thought to myself, “Whoa, this is a different type of guy,” then I sat and listened to the talk, and was utterly astounded by his intellect, humor, honesty, and passion for his patients. I had never heard a psychiatrist speak with a combination of such command and approachability, and again, I thought to myself, “Whoa, this is a different type of guy.”

Little did I know that Dr. Bell and I would end up serving together on the editorial board of CPN. I loved seeing Dr. Bell, and catching up and gleaning from his wisdom. I was very humbled by how generous Dr. Bell was with his time and the extent to which he would make himself available as a mentor. During a CPN board meeting, we were trying to come up with a mantra that would capture the mission of the new MDedge Psychiatry website. Dr. Bell (in a hat, of course) let everyone else talk, and then, in a calm voice, said: “We ask the hard questions.” As editor in chief of MDedge Psychiatry, I knew this had to be the mantra. It was aspirational, gave us an identity, and held our feet to the fire – to always ask hard questions in the service of patients and readers. I looked forward to discussing the evolution of the site, seeing him at meetings and conferences, brainstorming the implications of new advances in the field, and simply walking down the street and laughing.

Those events will never occur again, because Carl left us on Thursday, Aug 1. We at MDedge Psychiatry are grieving the loss of a colleague and friend. Carl has left us with a legacy of work that we are still coming to appreciate. He left us with a mandate to pursue the truth and make an impact in our communities. He taught black psychiatrists what it meant to stand up unapologetically for your community and society. As I reflect on the scope of his life, I have one last hard question for Carl: “Why did you have to leave us so soon?”

Dr. Norris is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, Washington. He also serves as assistant dean of student affairs at the university, and medical director of psychiatric and behavioral sciences at GWU Hospital. Dr. Norris also is host of the MDedge Psychcast.

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