Be Aware. Be Kind. Save Lives.

I started this past Monday afternoon just like any other. I headed to the library to study for my upcoming midterm, put my stuff down at my favorite study spot, and, in spite of my best intentions, opened espn.com on my laptop. In the midst of a sea of headlines persecuting LeBron James for failing to bring a championship to Miami, something caught my eye: “Ex-Duke Basketball Captain Emma Found Dead.” I clicked on the link, expecting to find that he had heart complications or finally lost a long battle with cancer, but I was wrong. Emma committed suicide on June 9th by jumping from the 12th floor of the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan.

As a Cameron Crazie and student with strong interest in mental health, this story really hit home with me. Emma was only 49 years old. I imagined how strange and sad it would be for me to go to espn.com 30 years from now and find out that someone I had spent four years of my undergraduate career cheering on, and to some extent even idolizing, had just committed suicide. Intrigued by the story, I sought to find out more about Emma’s life and perhaps understand why he had taken up such drastic measures.

The article I was reading directed me to a eulogy by Jay Bilas. Bilas and Emma were teammates under Coach K in the 1982-1983 season. In the eulogy, Bilas gave us insight on Emma’s character. When Emma and Bilas were teammates, Emma was a senior and Bilas was a freshman. Bilas portrayed Emma as a practical jokester, an unselfish teammate, and a leader. Such traits clearly helped Emma throughout his life. He went on to be drafted by the Chicago Bulls, received his Masters from Columbia, worked on Wall Street, became the president of a company, and even wrote six books.

By any objective view from an outsider, Emma had an immensely successful life. He got to play basketball for arguably the best coach in college basketball history. He got to captain a team of Duke legends such as Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, and Jay Bilas. He held degrees from two of the most esteemed universities in the country. He was able to use the skills he gained playing basketball and going to school to have a successful professional career. Such success is thought to bring about inner-peace and happiness. But this was clearly not the case for Emma.

Relatives revealed to the police that Emma had been depressed prior to committing suicide. Such tragic events remind me of why I have such a strong interest in combating the prevalence of mental illnesses. They can not only torment the victim of the illness and lead him to end his life early but also have a profound effect on everyone close to the victim. One blogger for Duke Basketball Report, who was also commenting on Emma’s suicide, expressed this in words better than I can:

“Losing people you care about is always tough, but nothing is tougher to come to terms with than suicide. On the one hand, you wish you had known or understood or that you could have intervened in some way. On the other, there is the absolutely raw emotion when someone does this. Perhaps someone being murdered is more searing, but at least there you can blame someone, have an emotional focus. In a suicide, there’s just grief and bewilderment.”

For suicide, people cannot blame a murderer or tumor or unhealthy lifestyle. The truth is, some of the strongest people are incapable of constantly fighting depression alone and eventually give in. Their absence or overabundance of certain neurotransmitters can be overwhelming, and eventually lead to suicide.

Family and friends often ignore the physiological aspect of depression and put blame on themselves for not being more available or loving. To them, the death is so cruel and avoidable, so unnecessary and so hard to determine a culprit. As a result, they often put the responsibility of the death on their own shoulders. They consider themselves to be the murderer, tumor, or unhealthy lifestyle. Bilas conveyed this sentiment in his eulogy, when he said “Like all of [Emma’s] teammates, I just wish that I could have been there more for him.” But nobody should carry the burden of another man’s life. No matter how close I am to you, I cannot understand exactly what you’re thinking or what you’re going through. Putting the blame on oneself is not healthy, wise, or correct. If a person was aware of how fragile the mental psyche was of someone they cared about, they most certainly would do anything in their power to prevent tragedy. They would have been more available or would have helped them seek professional help. In the event that their loved one had had a heart attack or been shot, they definitely would have rushed him to the hospital.

The real perpetrator of this death is the lack of credibility that depression and other mental health disorders have as legitimate health concerns. If everyone were aware of how dangerous depression can be, we would all take warning signs more seriously. Sadly, we cannot bring Thomas Emma, or countless others who lost their battle with depression, back to life. However, we can use these examples to arm ourselves with the knowledge of how serious of a problem depression is. In the future, when we see a family member, friend, or even acquaintance in need of help, we can help them in any way possible, whether it be by taking the time to talk to them, go somewhere with them, or even help them seek professional help.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that there is only one rule on Earth: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” I believe that most humans try to abide by this rule. But sometimes, they lack the knowledge of what it takes to be kind. Most of us are aware that someone who has been shot or just suffered a heart attack needs help, and the kind thing to do is to rush him to the hospital. Such impetus does not yet exist with fighting depression. By learning from the tragedy of Emma, and many others like Emma, we can learn to be even more kind and save lives.

Shaunak Varma is a Program and Research Intern with the SISGI Group focusing on mental health. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit www.sisgigroup.org.
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    • Angelita on 20 June, 2011 at 2:31 pm
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    Great article. Ya know, I never realized how dangerous depression could be, at any age. I just lost my husband to suicide on May 19, 2011. I never thought he was as sick as he was inside. He was 36 years old. I have so many emotions about the whole thing. But I never wanted to ever have to remember him-the last time-hanging in the garage. I am very greatful to websites like this one. I am not the only one. Thanks!

    1. Hello Angelita,
      Thank you so much for your honesty and for sharing your story. We are glad that you found this post and are sorry for your loss. Hopefully with more awareness and more information about the signs of depression, tragedy like you are facing can be prevented. Thanks again!

    2. Angelita,
      Thank you for your kind words. I am mortified to hear about your loss. I can’t even imagine how difficult the past month has been for you. Your final site of him must have been horrifying, and I am so sorry that you had to experience actually seeing him like that and deal with his passing. Whether it be through the support of your friends and family, your memory of him, your faith, or your inner resolve, I hope you find the strength to get through this terrible time. Just wanted to let you know that you are in my thoughts.

      Shaunak

    3. Hello Angelita,
      I just want to reiterate Shaunak’s words of support and encouragement. I can not imagine how difficult things must be for you after such a tragic loss. I hope that you are finding comfort and support in your community of friends and family and please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. If you are looking for more information for family members dealing with suicide please contact us directly at info@sisgigroup.org

    4. Hey Angelita,
      I really hope you got a chance to read my latest post about how suicide survivors can seek support. Your comment on this article inspired me to write it. Here is a link to the article: http://notenoughgood.com/2011/06/grieving-alone-support/
      You are still in my thoughts. I hope you are doing well.

      Shaunak

  1. This is an excellent article and one that embodies all of the elements of a new campaign we have started. Is there a way to contact you? If you have access to the email address I plugged in up there, you can reach me there or through ReachOutCheckIn on Twitter.

    Thank you for posting the story. It was a great read and you have great insight into the challenges we’re facing on a daily basis with regard to suicide prevention.

    • Shaunak on 19 June, 2011 at 11:09 pm
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    Thanks Yvonne!
    Yeah, I definitely agree that stigma is a big reason for the lack of credibility, or even the lack of acknowledgment. It’s a problem even more prevalent in lower-income countries. I’ve touched on this issue in previous posts, but I definitely plan on addressing it more in depth in the future.

  2. This was a great post. I think that we still have a long way to go in regards to mental health. You’re totally right about certain mental illnesses lacking credibility, which is probably also exacerbated by the stigma attached to mental illness. I hope that people will be able to see this and try to really see why mental health is so important to understand.

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