Mental illness is Hiding All Around Us

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On May 19, 1993. I received a midday, emotional phone call from a friend informing me of DC Council Chairman John Wilson’s suicide. My phone continued to ring for the remainder of the day.

Like most Washingtonians, I was shocked. As the weeks went by and more information surfaced concerning his death, it sparked a community conversation about mental health.

Known for his wit, humor, sartorial style, candid speaking and flashes of anger, John Wilson was one of the most colorful figures in DC politics. Although not a personal friend, he and I were acquainted due to my work with several community organizations.

We shared a birthday and we were two chain-smoking Librans with New York City connections. I went to high school and college there. John spent time in The Big Apple as a community organizer, working with Malcolm X. We both had a passion for progressive Democratic Party politics. John was the DC Democratic National Committeeman. I had served as the DC Young Democrats National Committeeman.

After his suicide, I found out that we also share something else, clinical depression.

In 1982, I was diagnosed with manic depression. My bipolarity wrecked my scholarly ambitions. During the ensuing years I experienced several hospitalizations and survived two suicide attempts. I treated my mental illness with medication and psychotherapy.

Embarking on treatment, medical professionals informed me that people who are bipolar may have to take medication for the rest of their lives. The illness could “burn out,” they said. Alternatively, patients lose the struggle much as John Wilson lost his.

Although my illness appeared to “burn out” during my fifties, my past experiences haunted me. Some physical problems led me to the United Medical Center hospital emergency room in March 2022. During intake I was asked if I had been feeling depressed and I answered yes. I agreed to be placed in the psychiatric unit. I stayed there for two days then signed myself out.

I left the psychiatric unit not because I felt better, but because I was afraid. Most of the patients in the ward were there involuntarily, because of arrests. On my first day while waiting to use the hospital phone, a large, menacing patient approached. I was intimidated. A few weeks earlier a patient at Saint Elizabeths hospital had killed another in his hospital room. If the new arrival decided to target me, I could not expect immediate staff assistance, I feared.

Progressive friends have argued the city should defund the police and route the savings to mental health services. But there I was in a psychiatric ward feeling vulnerable, because there was no security guard in sight.

How is that for irony?

The day after John’s death, I was listening to Cathy Hughes’ morning radio show. Her callers’ comments about his suicide prompted me to call in and share my own experience with mental illness. Cathy invited me back several times to talk about the subject. My radio appearances helped organize a Black depression support group that met weekly at Howard University Hospital for nearly a year.

Malcom X considered John Wilson “one of the funniest guys in the movement,” The Washington Post reported. John Wilson, civil rights activist, hanged himself, a form of self-lynching, on the birthday of Malcolm X, May 19th.

A building named after a man who lost his battle with depression houses our city’s leaders. Hopefully, they will do more within those walls to aid those with mental illness.

Long-time Ward 8 community activist Philip Pannell can be contacted at philippannell@comcast.net. Pannell is the Exbcutive Director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council. Help Make Wards 7 & 8 Great! Become a Member of the Anacostia Coordinating Council: Visit http://www.anacostiacc.org/join-us.html