Introduced cultural sensitivity and impact of childhood violence to the world
By Sally King
It was his awareness of violence, and the emotional pitfalls of urban life that he narrowly escaped, that led Dr. Carl C. Bell to the practice of psychiatry. Influenced by the violence he witnessed growing up in Chicago, his life’s work became addressing the impact that violence had on child development.
Bell devoted most of his career to juvenile and criminal justice reform and violence prevention. A prolific researcher and writer, Bell contributed much to the psychiatric literature, focusing on the psychology of children exposed to violence.
The prominent Chicago physician died at his Hyde Park home on August 2. His ex-wife, Tyra Taylor-Bell, and his son, William, were at his bedside when he passed. Bell was 71.
A child of the South Side, Bell grew up in Hyde Park and was a 1965 graduate of Hyde Park High School. He received his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, and upon returning to Chicago, he completed his psychiatric residency at the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute.
Bell practiced community psychiatry at Jackson Park Hospital and at the Community Mental Health Council, where as president and CEO, he helped to build that facility into a large comprehensive mental health center that advised other nonprofit and public entities focused on mental health. Most recently, Bell was clinical professor emeritus in Psychiatry at UIC College of Medicine.
Highly regarded as a sympathetic and empathetic practitioner, Bell “cared very deeply” about his patients according to Taylor-Bell.
When his Community Mental Health Council closed in 2012 after 37 years due to the lack of state funding, Bell said, “I was trained to be a community psychiatrist, so I rightfully expected to have my office on a fire hydrant somewhere…to do whatever it takes to give people the care they so rightly need.”
He went on to say, “I will be outside…with a chair, table, laptop, and my prescription pad. I am serious about providing mental health care to my patients.”
Bell tried to protect himself by maintaining a professional demeanor with patients, but was sympathetic to his patients and the environments which shaped them, Taylor-Bell explained. His ability to connect with patients and an appreciation for how environment impacts mental health anchored his practice.
Taylor-Bell noted, “His past motivated his work.” She revealed that Bell saw friends and classmates who never had the chance to grow up. He later observed the violence plaguing the South Side communities he served and assessed where the problems lay and did something about it, she said.
Bell treated many patients affected by violence-related trauma. In his clinical practice at the Community Mental Health Council, he saw youth affected by the daily violence related to the communities where they lived, and said he was “very concerned.” His concern about community mental health services and/or lack thereof was well-founded.
In a May 2019 issue of the Chicago Reporter, it stated that clinic closings over the years have left large areas of the city without adequate access to affordable, safety-net mental health services.
Of 253 private providers identified by the Chicago Department of Public Health, nine percent did not provide mental health services; only 15 percent provided free services; and 11 percent only accepted patients with insurance or did not offer sliding-scale rates.
Dietra Hawkins, Psy.D, lead consultant of Atlanta-based Both and Partners, Inc., and Bell’s colleague in the late 90s, shared that practitioners, such as Bell, are sorely needed. She remembers him for his groundbreaking holistic work and culturally-sensitive mental health treatment processes. Hawkins expressed shock at the news of Bell’s death.
“He was really personable and brought the science and research to what we were doing in the community. His Community Mental Health Council in South Shore and the satellite offices provided much for the community,” she said.
Hawkins added that Bell “was open to learning from the community, as opposed to being medication-driven.”
Among the work that Hawkins performed as an employee of CMHC, she mentioned that when Black parents were losing their children to the system, based on charges of neglect or violence toward the child, CMHC’s culturally-responsive parenting assessment team used data to assess their risks in an attempt to keep families together.
Hawkins, who holds a faculty appointment as an assistant clinical professor at Yale’s School of Medicine Program for Recovery and Community Health, said that Bell was instrumental in helping her when she went to the East coast, connecting her with other Black psychiatrists. She saw him regularly at the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health events in Atlanta.
Hawkins laments the closing of CMHC’s offices in 2012 due to state funding cuts. “The value about him was the work that he provided through that clinic and the services to the community—not just in Chicago, but worldwide.
“Early on,” she says, “he understood the importance of the social connection and addressed the issues of racism and the impact of microaggressions on community members.”
Bell commented that he had “tried to groom my replacements, and I have trained as many as I could to take my place.”
Community activist Dr. Conrad Worrill shared that as head of the CMHC, Bell “employed a host of African-American mental health professionals and provided a multiplicity of mental health services.”
A longtime friend of Bell’s, Worrill said Bell’s death sent shockwaves throughout the African- American community and the African world. He noted that Bell’s groundbreaking contributions in the area of violence-related trauma on child development were legendary. Explaining further, Worrill remarked that “as a researcher and professor, Bell published countless articles on mental health issues as they related specifically to African Americans.
“Dr. Bell was a giant in the field of psychiatry and followed in the tradition of Franz Fanon, Frances Cress Welsing, and in the field of clinical psychology, Dr. Bobby Wright. The contributions and ancestral spirit of Dr. Bell will be etched in our memory, and we will call his name always,” said Worrill.
Dr. Bell is survived by his son, William, and daughters Briatta and Cristin.
A memorial service for Dr. Carl C. Bell will be held August 23 at Apostolic Church of God, 6320 S. Dorchester at 11 a.m. Funeral services will be private.