Velma Love and Lee Thompson Young (Source: Velma Love)
COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -
After almost a year of silence, the family of Columbia-born actor Lee Thompson Young is opening up about his tragic death, and spreading the word about a foundation they've started to help others who struggle with mental illness.
In 1994, Velma Love was busy raising her youngest child. His name was Lee and he was her natural born entertainer.
"He would just kind of seek out where ever he could get an audience," Love said. "And he would perform. He would tell stories. He would do poetry. He would do speeches."
It might have been a phase for any other child, but Young took his passion for performance into his own hands.
"The next thing he asked was if he could have some business cards made," Love remembered. "And I said 'what will they say?' And he said, 'Lee Thompson Young, actor, poems, stories, and speeches.' And I had the cards made and he would just hand them out to whomever, where ever, we'd go to church, at school, where ever."
Born in Columbia, Young persuaded his mother to move to New York at the age of 12. There, he was quickly signed by a talent agent.
"I remember being in a meeting when I got the phone call about the Big Mac and I jumped up," Love said. "I was like, 'Oh my God! This is it! This is it!'"
As proud as his family was, they couldn't help but feel that his success was also their success.
"I mean, he is my little brother accomplishing his goals in the timeframe he set," Young's sister Tamu Lewis said. "And me being the planner, I was just like 'I taught him that.'"
Young would earn roles in primetime television shows, movies, and commercials. He would eventually land the starring role in 'The Famous Jett Jackson,' but there were some things he could not predict or control.
"In his late teenage years, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and I noticed some periods of sadness and that stabilized quickly," said Love. "Some of a person's inner life, you really don't know."
His mother, however, wasn't the only one who noticed.
"He would sometimes call me and say he was feeling a little sad again," Lewis said. "It was always a quick recovery and I, too, feel that he was always concerned about us. He was always protective of us."
According to University of South Carolina psychiatrist Dr. Ashley Jones, Young's diagnosis isn't uncommon. In fact, 2.6 percent of American adults are affected by bipolar disorder.
"It's very different than the normal ups and downs we have during the day," Jones said. "The depressive episodes last about two weeks. And with that, we see depression, hopelessness, sadness. Then there's a mania. They could be euphoric or grandiose with high self-esteem."
With medication and therapy, Young continued on his road to success and the roles got bigger. By the age of 29, he was a regular on another popular television show, playing Detective Barry Frost on TNT's 'Rizzoli and Isles.'
In August 2013, something changed.
"After we knew that Lee was found dead in his apartment from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, we, of course, were stunned," said Love. "I guess that's the question that everyone would ask. And we really don't know those answers and there's really no way to know."
After almost a year of silence, Young's family is finally opening up about his life and tragic death. They've just launched the Lee Thompson Young Foundation to try to help remove the stigma surrounding mental illness.
"I do feel like having someone like Lee impacted by it and it being in the news and that sort," Lewis said, "It sort of kind of makes it okay. People know that Lee wasn't the only one. And for them to see everything he accomplished in the 29 years, it's more than some people accomplish their whole lives. He was able to do that with a mental illness and, yes, it ended tragically but, through that we're inspired."
After Young's character lost his life in a car accident during the 'Rizzoli and Isles' season five premiere, the show memorialized Detective Frost Tuesday night. It will forever be his last television appearance.
Young always remembered Columbia as his home and, in death, his hometown continues to pay tribute to one of its brightest stars.
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