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Depression and African Americans: Not "Just the Blues"

If sadness doesn't go away, it could be clinical depression

Mental Health America | 8/16/2013, noon
"Blues" that last longer than a few weeks could be clinical depression.

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, gracelessness or faithlessness—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.

Clinical depression can affect anyone: 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. 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—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.

Myths About Depression

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.” 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.

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.

Clinical depression is a treatable illness: The good news is that, like other illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes, clinical depression is treatable with the help of a health care professional. In fact, more than 80 percent of people with depression can be treated successfully.