From major depressive disorder to perinatal depression to bipolar disorder, the black community suffers from depression as much as any other ethnic group. However, they are less likely to seek treatment, often suffering in silence. Why this? What is being done to support African American youth who are most vulnerable? Why are black men unintentionally targeted? This is a complex problem that can be remedied through awareness and education about the realities of mental health and depression.
Before learning more about how this medical condition affects the African American population, it is important to understand depression, its symptoms, and how it is commonly treated. Depressive episodes can be life-changing, and in some cases, life-threatening. If you feel that you are experiencing a major depressive episode, please contact someone immediately. You can call an emergency mental health hotline by dialing “988” or there is a list of resources at the bottom of this article if you need them.
Types of depression
Like most mental health conditions, there are many types of depression or related disorders that can be experienced. Anyone can exhibit mild or severe symptoms, with depressive episodes ranging from a few days to several months or even years. Below are some of the more common types of mood disorders that depression can experience.
- Clinical depressionThis is also called major depressive disorder or major depression. Typically, depressive episodes last at least two weeks. Symptoms occur most days of the week. There are several types of clinical depression, and you may experience additional symptoms of anxiety, sadness, or irritability.
- Persistent depressive disorderIf severe symptoms last two years or more, your diagnosis will change from major to persistent depressive disorder. Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are usually essential for treatment.
- Bipolar disorderIn addition to major depression, those with bipolar disorder experience periods of mania or hypomania. These mood swings can be managed with mood stabilizers. Some older treatments, such as lithium, can cause thyroid problems.
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)If premenstrual syndrome (PMS) becomes more difficult and accompanied by more depression than usual, it is likely PMDD or premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Women may experience more anxiety and irritability than expected.
- Perinatal depressionAlso called postpartum depression, many mothers experience severe depression in the weeks leading up to and immediately after giving birth. Treatment options will vary depending on the severity of your symptoms.
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)Many people experience seasonal depression during the winter when the days are shorter. You can combat less sunlight by using a special light box for a few minutes each day, or your doctor can prescribe antidepressants.
Depressive episodes, regardless of the type of mental illness, usually show many of the symptoms below. It’s important to remember, however, that each person is unique, and so is their mental health. Not all emotional and physical problems arise in the same way. If you notice that someone is acting differently, but you’re not sure if it’s depression, try reaching out.
Symptoms of depression may include:
- Feeling sad most/all the time
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Sleeping too little or too much (or at the wrong time of day)
- Eating too little or too much (or only eating unhealthy foods)
- Unexpected weight loss or gain
- Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Having little or no motivation
- Feeling agitated or irritable
- Difficulty concentrating
You may also experience physical symptoms such as:
- Muscle pain
Treatment of depression
Treatment for major depressive disorder or other mood disorders usually includes medication, talk therapy, and, in some cases, residential treatment options.
- MedicinesThe most common types of drugs used to treat depressive disorders are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. Although they should be used with caution in certain mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, they are an effective treatment for many people with long-term depressed mood.
- PsychotherapyCounseling or therapy is often recommended to accompany drug treatment for depressed mood and can help improve overall mental health. Many health care providers refer patients to talk therapy regardless of a mental health diagnosis based on proven benefits.
- Residential treatment optionsSevere depression or persistent depressive disorder may require hospital treatment to ensure safety and long-term stability. You may have inpatient or partial day patient options to help treat the condition or contributing circumstances.
African Americans and mental illness
Depression and its symptoms are fairly easy to recognize, especially when using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM-5. Depression and other mental disorders are often viewed differently in the African American population, but many in black communities do not seek treatment options, even when effective treatment is available.
Facts and statistics about depression
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 5% of adults worldwide suffer from depression, contributing to other illnesses, including disabling disorders and suicide. How does depression affect African Americans? Let’s look at some of the numbers.
- Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for 15- to 29-year-olds. African-American children under the age of 13 are twice as likely to die by suicide as white children.
- More than 4% of blacks self-report depression, compared to 3% of whites. These numbers may be skewed because many African American adults do not seek treatment and are undiagnosed.
- A 2014 study found that nearly 50% of black women self-diagnose depressive symptoms when they visit their primary care clinic. While there, 10% of the women expressed suicidal thoughts.
- Studies show that depressive episodes last longer in blacks than non-Hispanic whites, especially in those with co-diagnoses. Anxiety, PTSD, and addiction are commonly associated with major depression.
- The National Institutes of Health acknowledges that many black Americans lack access to culturally sensitive care.
How does it affect our communities?
The statistics go back decades, showing how black racial groups are affected at every income level and community type. The fact is, mental health is treated differently in the African American population. Concerns about mental health are widespread among all ethnic groups, but black Americans have a harder time finding culturally sensitive health care providers. When psychologists, counselors, and other providers are not black or do not understand what it is like to be African American, they may not offer effective treatment.
A harsh reality for black men
The American Psychological Association breaks down a report released by the University of Pennsylvania’s Racial Empowerment Collaborative. Not surprisingly, men are more likely to be exposed to news of racial violence. Most news stories involve black men, which makes them more relatable and adds a lot of stress to people within the community. This stress has only grown in recent years, spreading beyond local neighborhoods and into the national spotlight. Because of this, many African American men have delayed or stopped receiving treatment for mental disorders. Mistrust of one system has led to mistrust of many, including health care providers. Fortunately, this has been addressed (more on that below).
Stigma of hardness
The same report from the University of Pennsylvania details just a few of the ways these stigmas affect African-Americans, especially men. However, this is because race relations have made it harder for the black population to seek and receive help for mental disorders, including depression and related conditions.
Throughout Black history, various challenges have led to tenacity and resilience. However, as admirable as these qualities are, this sense of rigidity has also prevented many African Americans from seeking treatment options for mental health conditions such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and more. While it is important to persevere through difficult circumstances, you should know that treating depression is never an admission of weakness.
The importance of treating depression
Depression and the vast majority of other mental disorders are treatable. Emotional and physical problems can be addressed with medication, therapy, and other treatments. Working with a licensed and experienced professional can help you manage your symptoms, allowing you to return to the activities and people you love. A depressed mood shouldn’t hold you back or lead you to a more disabling condition, such as substance abuse, a sleep or eating disorder, or a chronic illness.
Making your voice heard
Like any other medical condition, depression can be treated by seeking appropriate health care providers. This is especially true if you have any risk factors, such as a family history or co-occurring disorders. However, the most effective treatments for depression are worthless if they are not available because of the “stiffness stigma” that permeates black communities. Bringing awareness to local clinics and hospitals, and making mental health care providers more accessible and culturally aware, are the first steps to ensuring our communities have a strong voice in the fight against depression and other mental disorders.
Resources for Depression
Organizations like Black Health Matters are working hard to ensure that black communities are more aware of the resources available, especially if they are suffering from a depressive episode or other medical condition. Other organizations that support the mental health of African Americans include Mental Health America (MHA), the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and the Black Mental Health Alliance (BMHA). We can prevent and more effectively treat depression by raising awareness in our communities, which starts with making our voices heard.