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Family tragedy puts spotlight on depression

tragedy 600Family and friends of Joshua Benjamin Nelson "Malekebu" Parks gathered last Saturday (Jan. 4) at First Baptist Church-Broad Street for a memorial service. It was part of the healing process unfolding after a triple shooting that left Parks and the mother of his children dead.

Police ruled the tragedy as a murder-suicide.

Parks, along with the 39-year-old mother of his two youngest children, were found inside a Binghampton apartment. She was pronounced dead at the scene. Parks, 34, died later at a local hospital. The 54-year-old grandmother of Parks' children was found just outside the apartment door in critical condition.

Park's mother is Bennetta "Bennie" Nelson West, the founder and executive director of the Memphis Black Arts Alliance (MBAA). She linked the tragedy to her son's bout with depression.

"Depression is a mental illness," said West. "It must be treated as a medical condition just like cancer or diabetes. The condition can be just as fatal if it goes untreated. We don't think twice about someone with chronic physical illness seeking medical treatment. Depression must be recognized as a disease and, likewise, treated, or the consequences are just as deadly."

Needed: 'a conversation about mental illness'

Dr. William M. Young Sr., executive director of the Emotional Fitness Centers of Tennessee, said the African-American community must remove the shame of suffering from mental illness.

"Depression has traditionally been seen as a 'white person's disease,' but black people have always suffered from depression and other forms of mental illness. Our people would say that someone had a 'nervous breakdown,' and it was a family secret that was not to be talked about outside the home."

The situation is complicated by a "historical distrust of doctors and institutions" that Young said has resulted in "a generation of African-American men who suffer from depression but many times won't seek help. The suicide rate of African-American youth between the ages of 15-24 has risen more than 500 percent since the mid-90's."

West said son's latest experience with depression was associated with him no longer living in the home with his two children. She tied his depression with some childhood experiences that she chose not to detail.

"I don't want to speak about Josh as a child. That isn't helpful to me, and I don't want to go there," West said. "But I will say that Josh's father was an African man, Malekebu, who was not in his life. And because he never knew his own father, Josh sought to be the best father he could be to all five of his children. He was a loving father and a wonderful person. I am grateful for having him with me while he lived."

'No mistakes or coincidences'

Parks is the second child West has lost. Her 19-year-old daughter, Sarah, contracted pneumonia on December 30, 2006, and passed suddenly.

"There are no mistakes or coincidences. I believe we must accept the divine order brought by the universe," said West. "Circumstances are 'pre-sent' to us; that is our present, our reality. We are all energy. We are all connected. I believe we must live with great gratitude for everything.

"I am grateful that I have one son still with me," said West. "Jacob lives in Nashville, but we have reconnected again, and we are drawing closer to each other because of Josh. I am grateful for that."

West said great good would come out of the tragedy.

"We must live out of love – love self first, love others, and then love the earth. I have no doubt that great lessons will be learned and shared.'

A fund for Parks' children has been set up at First Tennessee Bank. Donations will be received for the next two months. Gifts of any amount should be made payable to "Josh's Kids Memorial Fund."

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