For the past 34 days, water and an occasional glass of juice have been the only source of sustenance for Chicago theater artist Wendell Tucker.
After two failed suicide attempts and a subsequent diagnosis of major depressive disorder last year, the 31-year-old set out to create "Wendell Tucker Hates The World," a one-man show based on his own struggles with the illness.
Tucker and his theater company, Theori Stages, recently wrapped a successful six-show run in Chicago and are currently 34 days in to his latest effort -- a 40-day fast and Indiegogo campaign aimed at raising awareness about mental illness in the black community, and $5,000 to take his show on the road.
“We were looking for something that would make an impact,” he told The Huffington Post.
On day 33 of what Tucker has called "The Hunger Aims," the importance of his mission became even more apparent.
According to the New York Daily News, hip-hop mogul Chris Lighty died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, arousing new discussions on mental wellness and health in the black community. That discussion included comments from actor Malik Yoba, such as the following tweet:
Yet still, Tucker’s show has received a number of negative reactions, including cynical tweets and skeptical critiques.
“We had a few people who just didn’t agree,” he said. “They felt that, as black men, we didn’t suffer from depression or any of that -- that it was just an excuse to be lazy and not take responsibility for our situations in the world.”
“Now you have Chris Lighty, one of the most brilliant minds in hip-hop,” said Tucker. “It's like, whoa, okay this may be real.”
Not just real, but common.
Suicide is the third most common cause of death among African-American males between 15 and 24 years old, behind homicide and accidents, according to the American Association of Suicidology (AAS).
AAS statistics also show that African-American men are five times more likely to commit suicide than African-American women. And as a group, African Americans are more likely to experience a mental disorder than their white counterparts and less likely to seek treatment.
“It’s amazing that people you would never even expect, they’ve been depressed, they’ve also been admitted to inpatient therapy,” said Tucker, who called the suicide hotline one fateful night before deciding to go to the emergency room.
Not even Tucker's family knew about his diagnosis until they attended his show one year later.
“There’s all these people hurting,” he said. “They’ve been told to pray on it or 'Man up. You can’t be depressed. Depression is for white women.’ Everything except for ‘Okay, maybe you should go get therapy.’”
Earlier this year,Dr. Wizdom Powell Hammond, a UNC Chapel Hill professor and researcher, published the results of a seven-year study showing the benefits of African-American men openly discussing their stress when battling depression and suicidal tendencies.
“We can’t tell black men not to express their anger,” Hammond said in a recent interview with EBONY.com. “Anger is a legitimate emotion. To not express it when it’s an appropriate response is, to me, problematic. We also have to be comfortable with the full range of emotions, to [accept that] anger is not the only response black men have to racism. They feel shame, they feel sad, the feel upset.”
With $4,100 to go, Tucker has eight days left to reach his fundraising goal. But regardless of whether or not he hits the target, he plans to continue spreading awareness through theatre, particularly in his own Chicago community, where he says 10 welfare centers and mental facilities have been closed during “one of the deadliest years ever.”
“We’re going to keep going,” Tucker said. “By no means is that going to be the death of it.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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