Clinical depression is more than life’s “ups” and “downs.” Life is full of joy and pain, happiness and sorrow. It is normal to feel sad when a loved one dies, or when you are sick, going through a divorce, or having financial problems. But for some people the sadness does not go away, or keeps coming back. If your “blues” last more than a few weeks or cause you to struggle with daily life, you may be suffering from clinical depression.
Clinical depression is not a personal weakness, it is a common, yet serious, medical illness. Clinical depression is a “whole-body” illness that affects your mood, thoughts, body and behavior. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months or years. Appropriate treatment, however, can help most people who have clinical depression.
What causes clinical depression? Many factors can contribute to clinical depression, including cognitive issues (e.g., negative thinking patterns); biological and genetic factors; gender (it affects more women than men); other medications; other illnesses; and situational factors. For some, a number of these factors seem to be involved, while for others a single factor can cause the illness. Often, people become depressed for no apparent reason. In an effort to cope with the emotional pain caused by depression, some people try to “self-medicate” through the abuse of alcohol or illegal drugs, which only leads to more problems.
Anyone can experience clinical depression, regardless of race, gender, age, creed or income. Every year more than 19 million Americans suffer from some type of depressive illness. African Americans are over-represented in populations that are particularly at risk for mental illness. Depression robs people of the enjoyment found in daily life and can even lead to suicide. A common myth about depression is that it is “normal” for certain people to feel depressed—older people, teenagers, new mothers, menopausal women, or those with a chronic illness. The truth is that depression is not a normal part of life for any African American, regardless of age or life situation. Unfortunately, depression has often been misdiagnosed in the African American community.
The myths and stigma that surround depression create needless pain and confusion, and can keep people from getting proper treatment. The following are some of the common misconceptions about African Americans and depression: “Why are you depressed? If our people could make it through slavery, we can make it through anything.” “When a black woman suffers from a mental disorder, the opinion is that she is weak. And weakness in black women is intolerable.” “You should take your troubles to Jesus, not some stranger/psychiatrist.” The truth is that getting help is a sign of strength. People with depression can’t just “snap out of it.” Also, spiritual support can be an important part of healing, but the care of a qualified mental health professional is essential. And the earlier treatment begins, the more effective it can be.
Historically, African Americans have been and continue to be negatively affected by prejudice and discrimination in the health care system. Misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and lack of cultural competence by health professionals cause distrust and prevent many African Americans from seeking or staying in treatment.
Conscious or unconscious bias from providers and lack of cultural competence result in misdiagnosis and poorer quality of care for African Americans.
African Americans, especially women, are more likely to experience and mention physical symptoms related to mental health problems. For example, you may describe bodily aches and pains when talking about depression. A health care provider who is not culturally competent might not recognize these as symptoms of a mental health condition. Additionally, men are more likely to receive a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia when expressing symptoms related to mood disorders or PTSD.
In the African American community, family, community and spiritual beliefs tend to be great sources of strength and support. However, research has found that many African Americans rely on faith, family and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, even though medical or therapeutic treatment may be necessary.
Faith and spirituality can help in the recovery process but should not be the only option you pursue. If spirituality is an important part of your life, your spiritual practices can be a strong part of your treatment plan. Your spiritual leaders and faith community can provide support and reduce isolation. Be aware that sometimes faith communities can be a source of distress and stigma if they are misinformed about mental health or do not know how to support families dealing with these conditions.
Do rely on your family, community and faith for support, but you might also need to seek professional help.