Black women and depression
When I was 19, my grandma passed after fighting several illnesses. I took her death hard. I had never experienced heartbreak like that. I lay on my dorm room bed and sobbed uncontrollably for hours. Days passed, I barely ate, I couldn’t sleep and when I did sleep, I couldn’t bring myself to wake up at a reasonable time. I didn’t care about what was happening around me because I no longer have an interest in school, my friends … myself. After weeks of my friends trying to “pull me out of my funk,” they gave up on me. I couldn’t blame them; they didn’t want to be around someone who was miserable and negative. Hell, I couldn’t stand being around myself.
One day, my resident adviser said, “You are really torn up about the death of your grandma and I understand. I went through the same thing when my mom passed. You should talk to someone who can help you sort through this.”
I dragged myself to a counselor on campus. I didn’t know where to start. My grandma was dead, my grades were in the toilet and I didn’t have the desire to do anything or see anyone. I told the counselor in training, “Everyone keeps telling me to be strong but I can’t do that. I feel as if I am losing control of my emotions. Everyone tells me that this feeling of sadness, anxiety, misery and helplessness will pass, but there are moments when I feel like I can’t breathe and crying seems like the only productive thing that I can do. I miss my grandma.”
I couldn’t rationalize with my sadness. A lot of people experience the death of a loved one. I knew them. They would be sad for a few days and then move forward with their lives. I couldn’t.
Was I weak? What was my problem? I knew black women who experienced “real” issues. Women who are clinically depressed, anxious, suffering from traumatic experiences or dealing with sexual abuse. My grandma dies and I fall apart?
The counselor suggested seeing a therapist; immediately I told him that I couldn’t. It didn’t have anything to do with insurance or time; I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. “People are going to judge me and think that I’m crazy,” I said.
I just needed to push forward and talk about it, occasionally, maybe. The woman that I am now realizes that was not helpful to my emotional state. Understand I grew up hearing about people who were crazy and how no one wanted to be around them. They were scary and needed medicine to function. I didn’t want that to be me, so I carried on and struggled in silence.
The black community does not have the highest rates of depression in the United States, but they are less likely to report their symptoms of depression to a health-care provider. The stigma in the black community is stifling, which makes it exceptionally hard not only to acknowledge that there is a problem, but also to actually see a professional to receive treatment.
No one wishes to suffer from depression or anxiety, but I have seen the effects of stigma show its ugly horns. I have talked to white friends who speak calmly or energetically about seeing their therapist weekly and all of the great revelations they uncovered while being there. My black friends would never let that come up in a conversation.
In the black community, seeking the help of a mental health professional is viewed as a sign of a person who is weak and a person who lacks faith in God. Historically, black women have placed the burden of their families and their communities upon their shoulders. There is still the “strong black woman” fantasy. You know the one—the black woman is not only physically capable, but she is emotionally capable. She supports her family, but has the tendency to reject her own needs in order for her family to survive. The images that might be familiar would be Florida Evans from “Good Times” or Mabel Thomas on “What’s Happening.” Those images and that mentality is emotionally killing us. We are human beings with feelings, like everyone else.
Educating the community and providing safe environments for sharing is going to be the key in empowering black women to speak out and feel encouraged to find resources to better serve themselves, and then their loved ones will be able to understand, stand beside them, love them and support them. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness. People who are living their lives affected by depression cannot “snap out of it.”
How would you know that you could be depressed? I am going to list some symptoms and if those symptoms are a part of your daily routine, check in with a doctor or community health center:
Persistently 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.
Decreased energy, fatigue
Feelings of guilt, helplessness, hopelessness
Sleeping too much or too little
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities, sex included
Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
After my grandma’s death, I relied on the support of my family and my friends. I realized I wasn’t the only one. We all missed her. It didn’t make my feelings less valid. I knew I could talk to my mom, cousins or brother about all of the great times we had with her.
I also looked into stories about other black women who experienced challenges and how they overcame them: Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah and Can I Get a Witness?: Black Women and Depression by Julia A. Boyd. Those books helped a lot.
I met with a therapist for a few months. Having a professional with an empathetic ear served me tremendously. I was insistent that I was clinically depressed, but she argued that I was sad. I was given the freedom to just be sad without apologizing for it. I needed that.
Last but not least, I cried. It is good for the soul and, believe me, I did my share.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any symptoms of depression, be the love and support they need. It isn’t an easy conversation, but ensure them or yourself that depression is treatable with the assistance of a health-care professional.
Reprinted with permission from the Juliette Health Organization