What Blacks Should Know

The True Color of Depression 



By: Lavonia Perryman, Adjunct Professor


Depression affects at least 1in 6 people and can make a person's life a sad affair. It can make life very difficult. Depression is more than life’s typical “ups” and “downs.” As R&B Grammy winner says, "Life is full of joy and pain, happiness and sorrow." It is normal to feel sad when a loved one dies, when you are sick, going through a divorce, or having financial problems. But for some people the sadness does not go away, or it keeps recurring. If the “blues” last more than a few weeks or cause one to struggle with daily life, you may be suffering from depression.

  • Depression is not a personal weakness it is a common, yet serious, medical illness. Depression is a “whole-body” illness that affects your mood, thoughts, body and behavior. Without treatment, symptoms can last for an undefined amount of time.
  • Depression can affect anyone.  A person can experience depression, regardless of race, gender, age, creed or income.
  • In fact, every year more than 19 million Americans suffer from some type of depressive illness and according to a Surgeon General report, 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—elderly people, teenagers, new mothers, menopausal women, and/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 statements reflect some 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.” Getting help is a sign of strength. People with depression can’t just “snap out of it.” Spiritual support can be an important part of healing, but the care of a qualified mental health professional is essential.

The earlier  treatment begins the more effective it can be.

What causes depression? Many factors can contribute to depression. 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.

The good news is that, like other illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes, depression is treatable with the help of a health care professional. In fact, over 80 percent of  people with depression can be treated successfully.
However due to cultural backgrounds, depression may be exhibited differently among African Americans. 
To help decide if you—or someone you care about—needs an evaluation for depression, review the following list of symptoms. (If you experience five or more for longer than two weeks, if you feel suicidal, or if the symptoms  interfere with your daily routine, see your doctor.)

  • A persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood or excessive crying.  Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased appetite and weight gain.
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders and chronic pain Irritability, restlessness
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, feeling “slowed down”.
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism. 
  • Sleeping too much or too little, early-morning waking.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities, including sex.
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts.

The most common ways to treat depression are with antidepressant medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. The choice of treatment depends on how severe the depressive symptoms are and the history of the illness. In addition to treatment, participation in a patient support group can be very helpful during the recovery process. Support group members share their experiences with the illness, learn coping skills and exchange information on community providers. Also, be sure to take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest, exercise in moderation, stay away from alcohol and drugs, and eat regular, well-balanced meals. Some find strength from faith or spiritual communities.

What if a person doesn't feel comfortable talking to a doctor? Many people find strength and support through their religious and spiritual communities, however, only a physician or mental health professional is able to diagnose depression. Pastoral counselors offer  integrated religious and spiritual approaches to treatment. If you don’t have insurance or can’t afford treatment, your community may have publicly-funded mental health centers or programs that charge you according to what you can afford to pay. Some mental health professionals in private practice also work on a sliding-fee basis. University or teaching medical centers can be a source of low-cost or free treatment services. Many publicly-funded entities have waiting lists or other barriers to treatment. If you have trouble accessing treatment, contact your local mental health association (MHA) for assistance.

Depression is not a life sentence. You can enjoy your life again! With proper diagnosis and treatment, depression can be managed.


Medical Health Association
Center for Disease Control





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