Ellen McGirt

When news of True Blood-star Nelsan Ellis’ sudden death hit social media feeds last week, the outpouring of grief was immediate. The official cause was heart failure.

But yesterday, his family released a statement to The Hollywood Reporter that gave more details about how the beloved actor had died:

Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years. After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own. According to his father, during his withdrawal from alcohol he had a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, his liver was swollen, his blood pressure plummeted, and his dear sweet heart raced out of control.

On the morning of Saturday July 8th, after four days in Woodhull Hospital, Nelsan was pronounced dead. Nelsan was a gentle, generous and kind soul. He was a father, a son, a grandson, a brother, a nephew, and a great friend to those that were lucky enough to know him. Nelsan was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life. His family, however, believes that in death he would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others.

Ellis’s reticence to discuss his addiction doesn’t surprise Dr. Debra Warner, a forensic psychologist, and professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s program for clinical forensic psychology.

“Trust is the big issue,” says Warner, who has designed community programs helping law enforcement and government agencies better address substance abuse and other traumas in underserved communities. “Black folks don’t talk about their problems and there are real reasons why.”

Research shows that while African Americans consume less alcohol than the general population, they encounter more of the problems associated with alcohol use than European Americans. (Lower incomes, social sanctions for alcohol use, and increased law enforcement presence in their communities may be some of the reasons why.) And while white drug users are more likely to be seen as sick and in need of intervention, black drug users remain largely stigmatized.

Warner says people of color often don’t want to alert people in authority or government when there is a problem because there is so much distrust. It goes way back. “Think about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments,” she said, referring to the government-sponsored “study” that allowed the disease to go untreatedin black men for decades. “Think about what often happens with the police. Black people and people of color don’t want to talk about things that are going on in the family because something bad might happen.” And then there’s the stigma. “It’s very embarrassing.”

But there are ways to design interventions that work, and corporations are in a position to make a big difference.


Any unexpected, premature death is a tragedy, any death from drug abuse is doubly so.  We need to stop the stigma of addiction and figure a way to get help to those who need it.

Where are the Black Lives Matter gangs?  Here’s a person of color who died a preventable death.  Unfortunately there is still “choice” in addiction, choice to get the help needed or choice to let the disease take you out.  One of the diagnostic characteristics of the disease of addiction is relapse.  Few recovering addicts have a single sobriety date.  It’s the nature of the illness.  One must keep fighting.  Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) can be a big help in recovery programs.  Personal responsibility and taking ownership of the problem is a large part of the process of recovery; “rigorously honest in every detail” comes to mind.

Dr. Raymond Oenbrink