Home Health Glenn Ellis Ellis: Depression and Poor Health for African Americans

Ellis: Depression and Poor Health for African Americans

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By Glenn Ellis

Are you like millions of Americans, in a rut of being unhealthy, rundown, overweight, and unmotivated and can’t seem to break the cycle? It could be depression.

Depression is a serious mental health condition which causes extreme sadness and can have a negative effect on your motivation, behavior, health and quality of life. It is an illness and not a sign of weakness – depression can affect anybody and people can experience it at any point in their lives.

We see it every day; in ourselves; our families; in our friends; and in our communities. More than in other populations, African Americans are plagued with the chronic conditions resulting from the effects of chronic stress, material hardship, racial discrimination, and lack of physical activity.

People often need professional treatment and therapy to fully overcome their depression. Seeking help can be daunting, but it’s the most important step you can take to reduce your symptoms and return to the healthy and happy life you deserve.

Many of us are struggling to make ends meet and feel that the stress of it all leads us to depression and anxiety.

Actually, studies are finding that poor mental health leads to unhealthy behaviors in low-income adults – not the other way around. One study in particular, from the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at The Miriam Hospital, found that binge drinking, smoking, and illegal drug use may be used to cope with depression and anxiety.

We all know that any one of these bad behaviors leads to poor health, and in most cases chronic conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer, among other things.

If we could connect the imaginary dots between theses health conditions and the behaviors that contribute to them we would probably find that health-compromising behaviors, including substance use, unprotected sex, poor diet and insufficient or excessive sleep are directly linked.

Sadly, like most other things in this country, “when America gets a cold, black people get pneumonia.”

It’s no secret that as a result of 400 years of enslavement, racism, discrimination, marginalization, abuse, and exclusion, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is rampant in black America.

Make no mistake, it crosses the socio-economic classes for us. As a result, poor health outcomes associated with PTSD reflects our engagement in unhealthy behaviors that increase morbidity risk and disengagement in healthy behaviors that decrease morbidity risk.

We must acknowledge this reality in order to begin to become healthy as a collective community.

A study published in the May 2018 issue of Preventive Medicine shows that African Americans and Latinos are significantly more likely to experience serious depression than whites. The same study also found that African Americans and Latinos were more likely to have higher levels of chronic stress and more unhealthy behaviors.

Most black Americans live in chronically precarious and difficult environments. These environments produce stressful living conditions, and often the most easily accessible options for addressing stress are the various unhealthy behaviors mentioned earlier.

Historical adversity, which includes slavery, sharecropping and race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources, translates into socioeconomic disparities experienced by African Americans today.

Despite progress made over the years, racism continues to have an impact on the mental health of black/African Americans. Negative stereotypes and attitudes of rejection have decreased, but continue to occur with measurable, adverse consequences. Historical and contemporary instances of negative treatment have led to a mistrust of authorities, many of whom are not seen as having the best interests of black/African Americans in mind. This includes our mistrust of doctors and others who provide our healthcare.

All of this is meant to encourage you not to feel hopeless if you have a gym membership or have repeatedly made failed efforts to quit smoking, or to try to eat healthier. The answer could lie in addressing lingering mental/behavioral health issues.

I know it sounds easier said than done.

For many of us, stigma and judgment prevents us from seeking treatment for mental illnesses. It is commonly felt that many black/African Americans believe that mild depression or anxiety would be considered “crazy” in their social circles. Furthermore, many of us believe that discussions about mental illness would not be appropriate, even among family.

Even getting help and professional support is not easy. Less than 2 percent of American Psychological Association members are black/African American. This leads some of us to worry that mental health care practitioners are not culturally competent enough to treat our specific issues. This is further compounded by the fact that some black/African American patients have reported experiencing racism and micro-aggression from therapists. But we have to be diligent in protecting our right to live healthy and productive lives.

We are dying needlessly, and it doesn’t have to be. Reach out and ask for the help you deserve. Always keep in mind, “you’re only as sick as your secrets.”

Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.