Depression: The Black Community’s Dirty Little Secret

Often undiagnosed or ignored, depression afflicts millions. Experts share advice on noticing the signs and confronting the problem

Williams tackles "Black Pain"

And with White clinicians dominating the therapeutic community—English estimates less than two percent of all social workers and psychiatrists are African-American, out of 40 million—it’s no wonder more Black people aren’t opting to sit on a therapist’s couch. Still, English and public relations maven Terrie Williams, author of Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, insists neither money nor a potential therapist’s skin color should ever be a deterrent to getting the help you need.

“There are actually a considerable number of free services for high-risk groups like [school-age] children and women, ages 20-40, particularly in major cities,” explains English. (Men are less likely to seek help for their depression, she says, so there’s less data—and consequently—specialized services for them.) “For example, in New York City [you] can contact the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene to get screened for depression and to get help in [learning how to manage it].”

Williams, also a licensed clinical social worker who was diagnosed with depression herself in 2004, insists that a good mental health professional—Black or White—is better than none at all. “You can have a Black therapist who may not understand you as well as a White one,” she says, warning against stereotyping. “I once sent a gang member to speak to Dr. David Grand—a White therapist I love—and after he talked to David he cried… he had a total breakthrough,” she says. “David helped him understand he wasn’t crazy—he was just suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. It’s not just the veterans, you know—we’re at war in our streets every day.”

This warfare, Williams says, is often internal and historical: the result of unresolved childhood trauma around poverty, fatherlessness and other common “community” ills, manifesting in violence, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, workaholism and shopping, gambling and sex addictions. “We do not mourn that our daddies are not in our lives,” says Williams of the estimated 92% of Black households run by single mothers. She says millions of Black people are depressed over this critical issue and others, not realizing it. “Children experience this as the ultimate rejection and no one ever explains to them where that empty feeling comes from. If you’ve never talked about it, mourned it or even acknowledged it, how do you work through it?”

Many Black men often deal with depression quietly

That is why the celebrity P.R. rep, who says she keeps a bottle of the antidepressant medicine Clonazepam handy for when the blues hits, is a huge advocate of “talk therapy.” This, in spite of the argument Williams gets from many Black folks—particularly those in the church—who insist God is the only one who can take away their pain. “I tell them it was God who led me to the right psychiatrist,” she says. “He puts angels in our lives to help us do what we’re called to do.”

Williams encourages anyone suffering from an inability to sleep, eat, or enjoy their favorite activities for more than a couple of weeks to put aside any fears of being labeled “weak” and seek professional help. Being physically fit and working out can prove beneficial in building mental fortitude as well.

“People sometimes think I am a little overzealous about life-coaching, therapy and counseling,” she says, “but I think it’s essential for us to say it out loud, ‘I hurt.’ It’s so incredibly freeing. It’s not just the unresolved childhood trauma pain, either—it’s the stuff that happens to us on a day-to-day basis. The stuff you don’t recognize is hurting you until you sit down and talk about it. Write in a journal, talk to a friend, call a hotline—do anything you have to do, just give voice to it. Only then will the pain start to go away.”

Need help? There are several resources that can assist you:

Be sure to check out our other mental health coverage…

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