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Rep. Jamie Raskin's beautiful obituary for his son is an important message about mental health

When Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin and his wife, Sarah Bloom, announced the death of their 25-year-old son Tommy on New Year's Eve, the whole nation mourned with them. Many also quietly wondered what had caused his death. It's not anyone's business, of course. But when a young, seemingly healthy person dies unexpectedly at home, the question lingers.

Rep. Raskin provided an honest answer to that question in a way that is both heartbreaking and perfect. In a statement published on Medium, Raskin and Bloom shared the details of Tommy's life so beautifully, it makes anyone who reads it feel like we knew him. It also exemplifies how to talk about a loved one who is taken by mental illness.

The statement opens:


"On January 30, 1995, Thomas Bloom Raskin was born to ecstatic parents who saw him enter the world like a blue-eyed cherub, a little angel. Tommy grew up as a strikingly beautiful curly-haired madcap boy beaming with laughter and charm, making mischief, kicking the soccer ball in the goal, acting out scenes from To Kill A Mockingbird with his little sister in his father's constitutional law class, teaching other children the names of all the Justices on the Supreme Court, hugging strangers on the street, teaching our dogs foreign languages, running up and down the aisle on airplanes giving people high fives, playing jazz piano like a blues great from Bourbon Street, and at 12 writing a detailed brief to his mother explaining why he should not have to do a Bar Mitzvah and citing Due Process liberty interests (appeal rejected)."

The celebration of Tommy's life continues with a list of the people who surrounded him with love and support. His passion for true liberty and justice for all and his desire to solve problems of injustice, poverty, and war is clear. He loved animals and fought for their ethical treatment. He was a staunch antiwar activist. He was sensitive and kind, while also fiercely dedicated to making the world a better place for all in it.

"He hated cliques and social snobbery," wrote Raskin, "never had a negative word for anyone but tyrants and despots, and opposed all malicious gossip, stopping all such gossipers with a trademark Tommy line — 'forgive me, but it's hard to be a human.'"

That line, "forgive me, it's hard to be human," resonates with us all. It also helps explain why a young man with so much promise, so much passion, and so much support around him could die from a depression that led him to suicide.

Besides the incredibly touching way it was written, what strikes me most about this obituary is that it's exactly what an obituary of someone who dies from depression should be. When someone dies of a physical disease, we don't belabor the cause of their death. We mention it, we acknowledge it, but the focus of the write-up on their life is their actual life.

Tommy clearly lived an incredible life and was a uniquely remarkable person. The disease that ended his life, even in the way it did, did not define his life.

I've lost two family members who were in their early 20s—one to suicide and one to Type 1 diabetes. Neither of their lives were defined by the cause of their death. A young person dying is always a tragedy, but when we speak about people we lose to suicide, the wording we use matters.

The kind, funny uncle I lost to suicide was a year younger than Tommy Raskin when he died. I purposely choose to say "when he died" instead of "when he killed himself" because the latter implies conscious choice, and I don't know how much of it was truly a choice on his part. With suicide, the intention is obviously there, but it's impossible to know how much control a person actually had over it in the moment.

There's little comfort to be found when a loved one dies of suicide. But it helps to understand that that depression, while largely treatable, is a sometimes-fatal disease. Suicide might be the mechanism, but the disease of depression is the cause, just as unregulated blood sugar is the mechanism for someone who dies from the disease of diabetes. There are treatments for depression, but sometimes the disease is resistant to treatment. We'll undoubtedly get better at treatment and prevention of depression, just as we do with all illness, but the devastating truth is that sometimes people do die from it. While it's tempting to blame yourself or search for what you could have done differently to stop it, the terrible truth is it's not always possible to prevent.

Raskin's obituary says this about Tommy's passing:

"We have barely been able to scratch the surface here, but you have a sense of our son. Tommy Raskin had a perfect heart, a perfect soul, a riotously outrageous and relentless sense of humor, and a dazzling radiant mind. He began to be tortured later in his 20s by a blindingly painful and merciless 'disease called depression,' as Tabitha put it on Facebook over the weekend, a kind of relentless torture in the brain for him, and despite very fine doctors and a loving family and friendship network of hundreds who adored him beyond words and whom he adored too, the pain became overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable at last for our dear boy, this young man of surpassing promise to our broken world.

"On the last hellish brutal day of that godawful miserable year of 2020, when hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of people all over the world died alone in bed in the darkness from an invisible killer disease ravaging their bodies and minds, we also lost our dear, dear, beloved son, Hannah and Tabitha's beloved irreplaceable brother, a radiant light in this broken world.

"He left us this farewell note on New Year's Eve day: 'Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.'"

Tommy clearly made his mark on the world while he was here, which is more than many who spent many more years on this earth can say. May his legacy be carried forward by those who loved him, and may his memory be a blessing.

Photo courtesy of Girls at Work

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All images provided by Adewole Adamson

It begins with more inclusive conversations at a patient level

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Adewole Adamson, MD, of the University of Texas, Austin, aims to create more equity in health care by gathering data from more diverse populations by using artificial intelligence (AI), a type of machine learning. Dr. Adamson’s work is funded by the American Cancer Society (ACS), an organization committed to advancing health equity through research priorities, programs and services for groups who have been marginalized.

Melanoma became a particular focus for Dr. Adamson after meeting Avery Smith, who lost his wife—a Black woman—to the deadly disease.

melanoma,  melanoma for dark skin Avery Smith (left) and Adamson (sidenote)

This personal encounter, coupled with multiple conversations with Black dermatology patients, drove Dr. Adamson to a concerning discovery: as advanced as AI is at detecting possible skin cancers, it is heavily biased.

To understand this bias, it helps to first know how AI works in the early detection of skin cancer, which Dr. Adamson explains in his paper for the New England Journal of Medicine (paywall). The process uses computers that rely on sets of accumulated data to learn what healthy or unhealthy skin looks like and then create an algorithm to predict diagnoses based on those data sets.

This process, known as supervised learning, could lead to huge benefits in preventive care.

After all, early detection is key to better outcomes. The problem is that the data sets don’t include enough information about darker skin tones. As Adamson put it, “everything is viewed through a ‘white lens.’”

“If you don’t teach the algorithm with a diverse set of images, then that algorithm won’t work out in the public that is diverse,” writes Adamson in a study he co-wrote with Smith (according to a story in The Atlantic). “So there’s risk, then, for people with skin of color to fall through the cracks.”

Tragically, Smith’s wife was diagnosed with melanoma too late and paid the ultimate price for it. And she was not an anomaly—though the disease is more common for White patients, Black cancer patients are far more likely to be diagnosed at later stages, causing a notable disparity in survival rates between non-Hispanics whites (90%) and non-Hispanic blacks (66%).

As a computer scientist, Smith suspected this racial bias and reached out to Adamson, hoping a Black dermatologist would have more diverse data sets. Though Adamson didn’t have what Smith was initially looking for, this realization ignited a personal mission to investigate and reduce disparities.

Now, Adamson uses the knowledge gained through his years of research to help advance the fight for health equity. To him, that means not only gaining a wider array of data sets, but also having more conversations with patients to understand how socioeconomic status impacts the level and efficiency of care.

“At the end of the day, what matters most is how we help patients at the patient level,” Adamson told Upworthy. “And how can you do that without knowing exactly what barriers they face?”

american cancer society, skin cacner treatment"What matters most is how we help patients at the patient level."https://www.kellydavidsonstudio.com/

The American Cancer Society believes everyone deserves a fair and just opportunity to prevent, find, treat, and survive cancer—regardless of how much money they make, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, gender identity, their disability status, or where they live. Inclusive tools and resources on the Health Equity section of their website can be found here. For more information about skin cancer, visit cancer.org/skincancer.

via YouTube

This article originally appeared on 02.15.22


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