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Can I Just Tell You: Remembering Dr. Carl Bell


Finally today, I'd like to take a few minutes to remember Chicago psychiatrist Dr. Carl Bell. He died a little over two weeks ago on Friday, August 2, at the age of 71. Under the usual conventions of journalism, we would have acknowledged this right away. But you know what happened - there were mass shootings that weekend in the span of just a few hours in El Paso and Dayton. Less well-publicized - in his hometown Chicago, 32 separate shooting incidents that weekend left seven people dead and 52 injured.

I didn't talk about him then because, frankly, I just didn't have the bandwidth. But I want to acknowledge Dr. Bell now because so much of his work and his mission centered on something that concerns all of us, and that is violence - trying to understand the causes of violence and to treat the consequences of it, all of it - in the home, between gangs, bias crimes, street violence. He cared about all of it, and significantly, he cared about everyone - both the victims and the perpetrators who were, he constantly reminded us, often interchangeable.

He was obviously a person of deep empathy. Born and raised in Chicago, after medical school in Tennessee and a stint in the Navy, he returned to Chicago to practice. According to articles I read, he was always aware of the violence in his surroundings. But as a young doctor, his life's work was profoundly affected by treating a child whose mother had been killed in front of him.

He had a remarkably full portfolio. Along with seeing patients, he was a prolific researcher and writer. It was because of this scholarly work that I first met Dr. Bell - and it's depressing to remember this - reporting on another racially-motivated mass shooting, one that took place in August, 1999 when Buford Furrow, Jr. shot and wounded five people at a Jewish community center and then killed a Filipino American postal worker. By 2001, when Furrow agreed to a life sentence to avoid the death penalty, it was clear that he was a white supremacist who set out to hurt Jews and brown people. But it was also clear that he was mentally ill. At the time, one of Dr. Bell's projects was researching the question of whether such extreme racism is itself a form of mental illness.

After that first conversation, I found myself seeking him out at least once or twice a year to comment on issues related to mental health. Dr. Bell was a great source because he could explain complicated ideas in a way that anybody could understand. If your image of a psychiatrist as a bearded German man with tortoiseshell glasses, then you would have been quite surprised. He was a brown-skinned African American, wiry from years of practice of martial arts with a smoky voice that would have been at home hosting an NPR jazz program. I imagine his patients found him quite comforting.

But as a scholar, he thought it was important to address questions with great seriousness and precision. Thus, although he wrote a chapter about it for the "Oxford Handbook Of Personality Disorders," he never did tell me whether extreme racism is on its face a mental illness because, he said, the science is not strong enough yet.

Can I just tell you? Here's why I feel it's so important to talk about him and his work now. In 2012, the Southside Community Mental Health Council he started closed after 37 years for lack of funding. On the days following its closure, he sat outside in his car with a laptop, files and a prescription pad waiting for patients who might not have gotten word so he could greet them and try to help them get their meds and find other resources.

Mental illness is crushing many of us, and violence, particularly gun violence, is killing many of us. Dr. Bell spent his entire career trying both to answer the question of why and to repair the damage caused by our ignorance. It seems the least we can do is try to finish what he started on the South Side of Chicago and everywhere else.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "GOODNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.