If you were a kid growing up in the 90’s, you may remember the hit Disney Channel first original series The Famous Jett Jackson, starring Lee Thompson Young. Premiering in 1997, the television series was based on an African-American pre-teen by the name of Jett Jackson (Lee Thompson Young), who played a secret agent on a fictional TV show within a show called Silverstone. The series had guest appearances from numerous entertainment industry giants like Beyonce’ and Megan Good. This show placed a young black male in a leading role, while not entertaining some of the common negative stereotypes you typically see on television pertaining to people of color, especially young black males. Lasting for three successful seasons, The Famous Jett Jackson was a huge win for people of color everywhere and was a major staple in Young’s acting career.
Outside of acting, Young made sure to invest in his education. In 2001, at the age of 17, Young was accepted into the University of Southern California’s (USC) School of Cinematic Arts. While pursuing his undergraduate degree, Young continued his journey in acting, with appearances in the films Akeelah and the Bee, Friday Night Lights, and the made for TV movie Redemption. In 2005, Young graduated from USC with honors, and as a member of the historically black Greek organization Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.
On August 19, 2013, Young failed to show up for filming an episode on the TNT drama Rizzoli & Isles. Police were called to do a wellness check on him at his Los Angeles apartment, where he was found deceased. Police confirmed the cause of death as a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Soon after the horrific incident, Young’s family confirmed that Young had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and had been suffering from depression before his death.
This year will mark the five year anniversary of Lee Thompson Young’s death, and projects the importance of awareness regarding mental illness and depression. Unfortunately, mental illness and depression are taboo topics within the African-American community, especially for black males. Rather than receiving professional avail, when signs of mental illness surface, black men are often times told to “pray it away” or “ man up”.
According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Blacks are 20% more likely to suffer from a debilitating mental health condition than their white counterparts; 40% of white people seek help, compared to 25% of black people. Concealing emotional distress can sometimes be associated with the idea of masculinity and strength. A 2012 study from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discovered that black men are at a higher risk for depression when they mask their emotions. “We know that traditional role expectations are that men will restrict their emotions or ‘take stress like a man,'” study author and assistant professor of health behavior at UNC’s School of Public Health Wizdom Powell Hammond said in a statement. “However, the more tightly some men cling to these traditional role norms, the more likely they are to be depressed.”
Lee Thompson Young was a flame of talent that dimmed too soon; in honor of Young’s legacy, his family launched the Lee Thompson Young Foundation in an effort to help remove the stigma surrounding mental illness.
The mission for the foundation is to promote a world in which mental illness is recognized by all as a treatable, biopsychosocial disorder and the stigma associated with it no longer exists; a world that supports and encourages wholeness and well being at every stage of life.
“We know Lee wasn’t the only one. And for them to see everything he accomplished in the 29 years, I mean, it’s more than some people accomplish in their whole lives,” says Young’s sister, Tamu Lewis, in an interview with news outlet WFSB. “He was able to do that even with the mental illness. And, yes, it ended tragically, but through that, we’re inspired.”
If you, or a loved one, are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255.