Home Health Glenn Ellis Ellis: Depression, suicide and blacks

Ellis: Depression, suicide and blacks

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By Glenn Ellis

Last week, a dear friend, and a brilliant young man, ended his life by suicide.

The irony is that just a week before, in this column, I wrote about the increasing rates of suicide in blacks. As I mentioned in that column, the rates are highest in our young people. The central issue that is even less discussed regarding suicide is depression.

It has been made public that he was battling depression and couldn’t take the pain any longer. Depression is the thing that, quite frankly is bubbling under the surface in all of us, and for some it controls our lives, day in and day out.

Yet depression carries such a stigma in the black community that the word is not easily uttered. Regrettably, no one talks about it, and even more of us don’t understand it, or know what to do. “We say ‘I’m on my last nerve. If you push me any further, I’m going to lose it; you’re plucking my last nerve.’”

Major depression is a very common disabling disorder. Although the relationship between race and depression is complex, depression affects all races, all ethnic and geographic locations as well as all age groups. Major depressive disorder (MDD) is the fourth leading cause of disability and a leading cause of non-fatal disease burden. It affects one in five persons in the United States and manifests with symptoms that are physiological, emotional, motivational, behavioral and cognitive.

Sadness, loss of happiness, malaise, loss of motivation, decreased social interaction, disturbed sleeping, eating and sexual habits, difficulty concentrating, synthesizing, and memory losses are few reported symptoms for depression. Non-traditional symptoms may also be sometimes observed in African Americans such as hypertension and diabetes.

Research suggests that when blacks develop depression, it is devastating, persistent in course and has poor prognosis. Sixty-three percent of blacks see depression as a weakness, a problem only white people can afford.

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.

According to the theory of John Henryism, which was coined by Professor Sherman James of Duke University, the pressures of systematic racism can harm the body as well, making it significantly more susceptible to both depression and heart-related disease.

The name “John Henry” didn’t just belong to the retired black farmer he had the honor of meeting. It was also the name of a folkloric character, known throughout the South as the “steel driving man,” who was said to have extraordinary physical strength and endurance. As the legend goes, he collapsed and died after overworking himself one day. John Henryism was born out of a coping mechanism; it’s the best available strategy to survive hostility.

Psychologists have formally recognized John Henryism as a style of strong coping behaviors used by many African Americans to deal with psychosocial and environmental stressors such as career issues, health problems and even racism.

The classic traits of JH are seen among those African Americans who are extremely preoccupied with success, particularly in new environments with which they have little experience. Most commonly, people with JH are extremely goal-oriented but often lack the resources they need for success, such as financial or emotional support.

Like most blacks in this society, my friend suffered from his own form of John Henryism. Like many black people who are so intensely success-oriented and goal-directed, even beyond their resources such as income, education or family support, might seem to succeed at first. But long term, they are likely to fail because their lack of resources will catch up to them.

Add to that the African American situation, which, for many, includes an expectation that failure is inevitable, and you find yourself in a most self-destructive situation: suicide.

Black people are dying. Everywhere we turn, in the faces we see and the headlines we read, we feel in our gut that something is wrong, but we don’t know what it is. It’s time to recognize it and work through our trauma.

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, over 80 percent of people with depression can be treated successfully. If you, or someone you love needs help, get it!

Rest well with the Ancestors, Reuben Canada. May you find the Peace in death, that was so elusive in life… .

Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. 

 Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com