Fighting Depression: Recent tragedies unmask silent killer among Blacks

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by Brandon A. Perry, Indianapolis Recorder

(NNPA)–Popular Soul Train host Don Cornelius, influential hip-hop manager Chris Lighty and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher had different lines of work.

What they had in common, however, is one startling fact: This year they all lost their lives in a way that many believed was once uncommon among African-Americans. They took their own lives through suicide.

DonCornelius
Don Cornelius is seen at the 9th Annual BET Awards on June 28, 2009, in Los Angeles. The “Soul Train” creator was found dead at his Sherman Oaks on home Wednesday morning. (AP Photo/File)

Their shocking deaths raised awareness about the impact of depression and other forms of mental distress on the Black community.

“Those tragedies have special meaning for the African-American community, which has long nourished a dangerous myth that Black people don’t commit suicide,” noted Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page.

In addition, the issue has become even more timely as the holidays approach with studies long showing that cases of depression and suicide increase during the winter months.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s office and the American Association of Suicidology, more than 19 million Americans have a depressive illness, with many of them, an average of 100, committing suicide everyday.

Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that in recent years suicide rates have been high enough to claim an African-American every four and a half hours. Also, suicide is now the third leading cause of death among African-Americans between the ages of 15 and 24, and more than doubled among Black males.

Amy Alexander, after losing her brother to suicide, decided to write Lay My Burden Down, one of a few books that specifically addresses depression and suicide in the African-American community.

“It is very much a misperception that Black people don’t commit suicide and that comes in part from a historical need – a very real and legitimate need – for Black people for many years to be very strong,” noted Alexander, who released her book with noted psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School.

Arlinda Lindsay, a therapist with the Adult and Child Mental Health Center in Indianapolis, often speaks with individuals who express those beliefs.

“I’ve heard some people say, ‘well, my parents dealt with their problems, and our ancestors in slavery dealt with challenges, so I can surely deal with what I’m going through now,’” said Lindsay.

Recently, a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health showed that African-Americans are actually less likely than Whites to have a major depressive disorder, but their cases tend to be more chronic and severe.

Also, “African-Americans, fewer than half with major depression, actually undergo treatment,” said Dr. David R. Williams, a Harvard School of Medicine professor and lead author of the study.

Lindsay noted that a lot of people, African-American and otherwise, don’t seek treatment when they are dealing with depression because they view it as a sign of weakness.

“They suffer silently without getting any help, then the depression intensifies, and the person loses hope because they have not opened up to anybody and won’t let nobody in,” Lindsay said. “There’s a stigma that says if you are seeing a therapist, then you’re crazy. It’s not about being crazy, it’s about taking care of your mental health like you would your physical health.”

Lindsay added that treatment among African-Americans has also been complicated by a variety of factors, ranging from lack of access to treatment for financial reasons, to a historical mistrust of mind altering medications and the mental health profession, although that may change as more minorities enter the field.

“The African-American community needs to be educated about the importance of mental health, through our churches and other institutions in the community,” Lindsay said.

Experts hope that awareness will be raised as a result of the deaths of Cornelius, Lighty and Belcher, as well as the sudden hospitalization and resignation of ex-Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, presumably due to mental health concerns.

Cornelius, 75, took his own life in January, in the midst of coping with a recent divorce and health problems. Lighty, 44, shot himself outside his New York home after a conflict with his estranged wife, and Belcher, 25, shot himself near the Kansas City Chiefs’ training facility after killing his girlfriend, with whom he had a three-month-old child.

Everyone gets depressed at times, but it can range from mild and temporary, to severe forms related to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Prolonged, severe depression can become debilitating and take people into isolation, where they consider such drastic acts as suicide.

Suicide can be easily prevented if those struggling with depression are treated with counseling, and if necessary, medication, experts say.

“It is also important to talk to a friend, a family member or someone about how you feel,” Lindsay said. “Many depressed people prefer to handle things on their own. It’s not a sign of weakness to talk about your problems, it’s a sign of strength.

We are created to be relational and interact with others. We need those relationships to help sort things out.”

Overcoming depression

Common symptoms to watch for in yourself or a loved one

• A persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood.

• Reduced or increased appetite, sudden weight loss or weight gain.

• Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders and chronic pain.

• Irritability, restlessness.

• Decreased energy, fatigue.

• Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, pessimism.

• Sleeping too much or too little.

• Loss of interest or pleasure in activities.

• Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.

• Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts.

What you should know

• Clinical depression is more than “the blues.” It is normal to feel sad when a loved when dealing with death, illness, divorce or financial problems. But for some people the sadness does not go away. If your “blues” last more than a few weeks or causes struggles in daily life, you may be suffering from depression.

• Depression is not a personal weakness, – it is a common, yet serious, medical illness. Appropriate treatment can help people with clinical depression.

• Many factors can contribute to depression, including cognitive issues (such as negative thinking patterns); biological and genetic factors; other medications; other illnesses; and situational factors.

• Over the holidays: For many people this may be a holiday season without a cherished loved one. It is recommended to acknowledge how much you miss the person and discuss how you feel with someone. You may also do something to honor their memory, and then conduct an activity (different from normal routine) to keep your mind focused on something positive, such as volunteering.

• 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. Over 80 percent of people with depression can be treated successfully.

Courtesy: Mental Health America

Reprinted from the Indianapolis Recorder.

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