Saturday, April 16, 2011

Soul Work: Depression Amongst African American Women

While most students joined fraternities and sororities, established friendships and enjoyed the college life at Tennessee State University, Veronica Grayson*, 22, of Chicago, felt alone. Grayson’s friends transferred schools at the conclusion of freshman year. With a fear of not being accepted, Grayson found it difficult to make new friends and she felt alone.

Junior year, Grayson returned home, transferring to the University of Illinois-Chicago. Being home brought comfort, but her troubles didn’t cease. With a lack of black student organizations on campus, Grayson felt sorority life was the only way to make friends, but fear of acceptance, again, worried her.

“I’m the new girl, everyone has friends, and I’m trying to make friends,” Grayson states. “I was scared of having to put myself in situations where people had to decide if they liked me, so I decided to be alone.”
Isolating herself from her peers, Grayson became overwhelmed with loneliness and began to care less about her life. She abandoned her friends and withdrew from her environment, two signs of clinical depression.

Nearly 20 million Americans suffer from depression each year. African-American women are affected more than any other group in the U.S. In 2009, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that only 12 percent of African-American women receive treatment for their depression, the number one cause of suicides in this country. So why aren’t more African-American women receiving treatment? Some aren’t knowledgeable of depression’s symptoms, but for those who are and acknowledge that they’re depressed, a stigma within the African-American community prevents them from seeking treatment. This same stigma is responsible for the scarce research and lack of formal statistics on depression amongst African-American women, as many are unwilling to participate in research studies.

“When I first began my practice, I wondered who would come talk to me,” says Lasonda Wilkins-Hines, 40, of Chicago. Wilkins-Hines is an African-American licensed social worker specializing in depression and runs a private practice, Soul Work, in the Bronzeville neighborhood. “We come from a culture where we need to be strong as African-American women and it’s been passed down for generations that you suck it up or you talk to the pastor.”

The African-American community, women in particular, associates weakness with those in need of mental health treatment. “Black women tend to present themselves to society as strong, resilient human beings,” says Texas-based psychologist Dr. Yolanda Brooks in the Women Enews October 2001 article Lives of Women of Color Create Risk of Depression. In my opinion, you can trace this dynamic back to slavery, when a woman had to pretend she was okay when she was actually suffering inside.” This stereotype has been perpetuated in many books and movies, such as Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls and Gloria Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place, and has rooted itself in the African-American community.

As a psychology student, Grayson’s studies have taught her to recognize the signs of her depression. Still, Grayson didn’t receive treatment right away in fear of being stigmatized. “Once you reveal that you deviate from the norm, you no longer can go back to that,” says Grayson. “No one is going to look at you as the healthy person you are now, they’re going to remember that you were mentally ill.”

Grayson’s depression began as a sophomore at TSU and carried on with her after transferring to UIC in January of 2010. She recalls her lowest point in mid March where she felt her life didn’t matter. “Because I was so isolated,” she recalls, “I felt that if I lock myself in this room, because I don’t have any friends, no ones going to come looking for me because no one cares. So what am I doing here?” it was Grayson’s wakeup call.

“I don’t believe in suicide and it was getting to where that was the only thing that could come next. So in order to prevent something like that from happening, I decided it was time to go talk to somebody.”

Wilkins-Hines identifies the number one reason for seeking treatment with depression is because it can lead to suicide. “Sometimes our hormonal levels get so low that we start to rationalize suicide, like it’s our only way out. It gives us a sense of peace.”

Grayson scheduled an appointment with the school’s psychologist and immediately began treatment. “A lot of times we’re stuck with the burden of situations and trying to overcome them on our own because that’s how we were reared,” says Wilkins-Hines. “You have to be crazy to see a therapist. They [African American women] don’t understand that everyday people struggling with everyday issues seek therapy as well.”
Receiving treatment can combat other issues brought on by depression, such as its interference in our daily lives. “We aren’t able to get up and go to work and be productive, we aren’t able to be as involved with our children and we aren’t able to be as attentive to our husbands because we’re in a state where we want to be isolative and alone,” explains Wilkins-Hines. She also emphasizes that no one has to live this way. “It’s not acceptable to walk around unhappy and miserable and to feel like you have this weight on your shoulders not knowing what to do about it,” she adds.

Indeed, seeking treatment helped to lift a great burden off Grayson’s shoulders. Through the use of talk therapy and a number of activities, Grayson addressed what was going on in her life and how to change it. “She gave me a course of actions to get myself back on track such as and really helped a lot,” says Grayson of her psychologist. “I was able to get my grades back together before the end of the school year and I was able to keep my problems under wraps because I had better control over them.”

A number of campaigns address depression and many resources are made available to treat the mental disorder. “I get more middle class professionals that come to therapy,” says Wilkins-Hines. “White people have therapists like they have a hair dresser. They aren’t ashamed of it because they understand that emotional health is as important as physical health where as we think its taboo.”

Until the stigma affecting the African-American community is overcome and eliminated, it will continue to jeopardize the mental health of African-American women across the country. “We need to educate and normalize it,” suggests Wilkins-Hines. “We need to make people aware that depression is something everyone may experience in their lifetime. I myself have experienced it.”

Today Grayson describes her depression as being in remission and is actively involved on campus, most recently lending her fashion expertise to style participants of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated’s Miss Black and Gold Scholarship Pageant. She’ll be graduating this fall with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and nursing with plans to be a nurse practitioner. Grayson’s favorite pastime however is visiting various boutiques around the city and blogging about the latest fashion trend. “I broke the idea that you have to be ashamed of seeing a doctor,” Grayson says. “There are black women that don’t get help and I did.” Hopefully more African-American women will choose to the same as the awareness of depression is spread into the black community.

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