Growing up with Depression in the African-American Community

"As a clergy with a Ph.D. in psychology and religion, I recognize the signs of depression in many of the African American young adults in my life"

by Rev. Jacqui Lewis, Ph.D., October 24, 2017

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John Harris is one of my favorite young adults in the world. A fitness instructor, actor, model, singer and activist, he exudes joy and positive energy. His sense of wonder at the world is contagious. But it was not always that way.

When John came out to his traditional southern family as teen, he was literally put out. He was homeless in New York, living in his car, or couch surfing in order to survive. In 2012, he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

“It was one of the most difficult times of my life. Up until that point I was faking happiness and contentment,” John said. “I began to share my story for the first time after I was diagnosed. Experiences of abuse, homophobia, racism, poverty and homelessness were all parts of my story that I had suppressed and now faced head on. The more I told my story, the more liberated I felt.”

John now tells his story freely and his openness sets the context for others to share, and to encourage each other to get help, like he did.

As a clergy with a Ph.D. in psychology and religion, I recognize the signs of depression in many of the African-American young adults in my life. One young man is so disappointed in his life, he medicated himself with beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He puts himself to sleep smoking pot. There is a young woman whose father is African and whose mother is white. The horrific killings of Black men at the hands of the police these last years sent her into a tailspin of depression. There is a young woman who is an actor, who has trouble finding work. Her mother is wholly unsupportive of her career choice and her gifts.

I am convinced that the hateful rhetoric and violence based in racism and white supremacy that plagues our nation puts a depressive pall on top of those who are clinically depressed.

Depression is an epidemic among young adults today. Those diagnosed with depression are five times more likely to attempt suicide than adults and sadly, 80 percent of young adults who need mental health services won’t get it. In the African-American community, taboos about issues of mental health make it even more difficult for young adults to get help.

Friends, family and caregivers in the African-American community clearly need better ways to support young people who too often suffer alone. We know that learning from others’ experiences can improve care—whether for cancer, chronic disease or mental health. But because no two patients are exactly alike, stories can also be misleading when used to stuff patients into a one-size-fits-all anecdote, which is why an international movement is underway to provide a scientifically sound way to share health experiences.

The first informational resource is available in the U.S. and targets the epidemic of depression in young adults. This one-of-a-kind resource, Health Experiences USA, methodically categorizes dozens of first-person stories from diverse young adults, including African-Americans, who bravely bust through bias to help friends and family, caregivers and sufferers, understand the disease and better manage day-to-day. These stories, collectively, can help all of us better understand individual circumstances and patterns of depression, and ways to be better supporters of those we care for.

Through the resource, young African-Americans speak about their experiences with black cultural bias around depression. In the communities in which they grew up, depression was just not “part of the vocabulary,” or it was “frowned upon,” so it was difficult to get help. “The black community doesn’t talk about mental illness like they should,” says Jeremy, but he understands this stems from a bitter history when “black people were misdiagnosed.”

Experts in the mental health field want to see that change. So do the 38 storytellers at Health Experiences USA who hope that by stepping forward, their words will help others.

Jacqui Lewis is Senior Minister at Middle Collegiate Church, an almost 1,000-member multiracial congregation in the East Village of Manhattan. She earned a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Philosophy in Religion and Society: Psychology and Religion from Drew University.

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