Black History Month: Dr. Carl C. Bell

Carl C. Bell, MD, may have died in 2019 at the age of 71, but his contributions to psychiatry will live on.

He wrote about and spoke for many issues, including fetal alcohol syndrome disorders (FASD), bipolar disorder, and trauma.

Bell practiced in Chicago and helped found the Windy City’s South Side Community Mental Health Council, even sitting outside the facility to see patients after it suddenly closed in 2012. He was dedicated to raising awareness of FASD as well as helping families affected by it.

FASD occurs in people whose mothers consumed alcohol during pregnancy, resulting in both physical symptoms and behavioral and learning problems.

Physically, people with FASD may have:

  • Smaller eyes
  • A very thin upper lip
  • Short, upturned nose
  • Skin between nose and upper lip is very thin and smooth
  • Smaller head and brain

It can affect heart, kidney, and bone development.

FASD can also impact coordination and balance, attention, memory, speech, and learning. During their school years, affected youth may end up in special education. As adults, they may have trouble getting along with others and land on the streets or in jail.

While estimates state that FASD may affect up to 5 percent of Americans, Bell thought the numbers could be higher in poor neighborhoods. His goal was to help call attention to a problem that plagued his African American patients and community, as well as many others.

It’s an easily preventable disorder, in theory, because the best cure is to not drink during pregnancy.

Many women, however, may not know they’re pregnant for a few weeks after conception, even though binge drinking — four or five drinks in one occasion — can be enough to cause brain damage to a fetus. (The early stages of pregnancy are when the fetus is most at risk.)

The faster a woman stops drinking after a pregnancy diagnosis, the better for her health and that of her unborn child.

Bell looked at the bigger picture, looking for clues in each patient’s story. Were people born premature? What kind of schooling did they receive? What are their cognitive skills? Are there alcoholics in the family?

He also suspected that some youths in juvenile detention may have FASD. He wondered if the condition’s tendency to generate antisocial behaviors led the youths to defy law and order.

Dr. Carl C. Bell had many irons in the so-called fire, but he hoped that his FASD research might lead to community-wide change for people to see the ruin alcohol abuse could inflict upon society.

He also hoped that more children would receive treatment instead of being written off as lost causes doomed to jail. Or worse.

 

Sources
cdc.gov – Basics About FASDs
pbs.org – This Chicago Doctor Stumbled on a Hidden Epidemic of Fetal Brain Damage