The Sad State of Depression In the Black Community

Photo by Robert Stewart via Flickr

Depression is heavily misunderstood in the black community. While medical professionals see depression as a mental illness that needs proper treatment, it’s often confused as emotional angst. Its incorrect categorization is likely the cause for high rates of untreated depression found in black women and why the suicide rate for black men “between 20 and 24 is the highest among blacks, people of all ages, and genders.” Education about depression’s cause and effects, as well as the benefits of therapy and treatment, will go a long way to assuage the fears and stigma that surround it.

Conveying the idea depression is a mental illness is a difficult task. It isn’t like cancer, where the body’s deterioration provides visual confirmation of an illness. It’s a problem of the mind, with many thinking the key to eliminating bad thoughts is exhibiting control of those thoughts. Depression’s symptoms include memory loss, feelings of hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts, symptoms that may go unnoticed by an observer. Unnoticed, because black men and women needing to wear “masks” to hide their suffering is a side effect of societal pressures placed on both genders.

Black men, due to patriarchal ideas of manhood and fearful of being seen as “emotional,” feel prohibited from freely sharing what’s bothering them. An impromptu question posed on Twitter lends further credence. Black men were prompted to “retweet this if you’re a black man and have been accused of being too emotional when expressing your feelings.” Over 100 retweets came from black men in response, with many explaining the rejection of their “softer” side prevented them from opening up about their issues in the future. Black men feeling forced to remain silent about inner conflicts and their inability to process those emotions can have real life consequences. Madison Grey, author of “Depression, the Other Side of ‘Man Up’” echoed those sentiments and discussed potential pitfalls:

For Black men we are taught to not deal with our feelings. Yeah, that’s true. I even told myself to “man up” last weekend, but then I wondered how many times had I flown off the handle when I kept it all bottled in rather than talking about it. If that’s the case, how many men turned their depression into anger, resulting in violence? How many lives could have been saved, caps and gowns been worn, or prison beds left unoccupied if brothers just had the chance to open up?

Lack of acceptance for black men expressing their emotions is a hurdle to black men receiving treatment for depression. Black women are tormented from a similar issue because they don’t want to be seen as weak.

Black women are expected to be strong in a way that makes them the “mules” of the community. They are expected to carry the burden when others can’t, so they find themselves risking their health to be the shoulder everyone leans on. It’s a burden they feel obligated to carry. Josie Pickens captured this sentiment in article for Ebony online, “Depression and the Black Superwoman Syndrome.” Pickens wrote:

I honestly believe we’re so accustomed to delivering the strong Black woman speech to ourselves and everyone else that we lose our ability to connect to our humanness, and thus our frailty. We become afraid to admit that we are hurting and struggling, because we fear that we will be seen as weak. And we can’t be weak. We’ve spent our lives witnessing our mothers and their mothers be strong and sturdy, like rocks. We want to be rocks.

Pickens made a salient point. If black women are indoctrinated with the idea they cannot be seen as weak and depression is seen as weakness, how will they feel comfortable getting help? Nia Hamm wrote in her article, “African American Women and Depression” that black women “experience higher rates of depression than their White female or Black male counterparts but receive lower rates of adequate treatment, [so] they remain one of the most under-treated groups in the United States.” With studies proving black men and women both suffer from lack of treatment for depression, negative views on those who receive help are disappointing.

Attitudes about depression are serious barriers for receiving treatment. In every statistical category, blacks are more likely to suffer from depression and less likely to receive treatment than their white counterparts. In fact, more than half of the black community believes depression is normal, with only 31% believing it to be a “health problem.” Other barriers include denial, being embarrassed for needing treatment, lacking the necessary resources, an intense feeling of hopelessness, or simply not wanting to receive any help.

Education about depression’s origins and effects, while reframing the narrative, will go far in removing its stigma. Understanding it’s a mental illness and not “confused emotions,” will allow black people to see it as something that needs to be treated like other illnesses. Depression is not something that will “pass over’’ or can just be or “prayed away.” Someone recognizing a combination of therapy (getting rid of negative thoughts) along with prescription medication doesn’t make them weak. Strength shouldn’t be determined by being able to handle things alone. It takes a strong person to admit they need help, then to go and seek it.

Until depression is respected as a mental health issue that requires treatment, black men and women will continue to endure its negative effects.

By Garfield Hylton

Garfield Hylton, J.D., is a dark-humored, self-deprecating misanthropist whose only hope of redemption is turning blank Google Word documents into piles of well-executed thoughts. He likes to add the suffix "J.D." on everything he writes because he understands that everything sounds better when coming from a doctor. You can listen to his podcast here: @NWAPcast.