The Walking Wounded

Depression is a debilitating medical condition that affects blacks as it does no other group. Left unchecked it can affect much more than your mood—it can ruin your health

Like Jones, some sufferers believe that they’re imagining the severity of symptoms and that eventually they will be able to pray or will the sadness or behavior away. Donna Holland Barnes Ph.D., president and co-founder of National Organization of People of Color Against Suicide, says, “Lack of communication helps to deepen depression, because symptoms are misunderstood and therefore go untreated.” Black men are less likely than women to seek help, Barnes adds. “They are less likely to comply with treatment and less likely to stay in treatment if they start it.”

Medication can both manage a depressive condition and cause other challenges, such as weight gain or impotence, explains Newton, who does not oppose the use of medication. “Understandably, patients are reluctant to take [their medicine], which perpetuates the cycle.” Akinduro is on medication, but it took three or four tries to find one that worked for him without side effects. Jones is reluctant to try it and prefers sessions with a therapist, which has worked for her, but in some cases psychotherapy is not enough.

The Physical Toll
Although many suffer in silence, the effects of depression are never felt in isolation. Aside from the variety of burdens it may place on the family of a sufferer, depression cost the U.S. about $83 billion because of decreased productivity and workplace absenteeism in 2000, the latest year for which numbers are available. There are other health costs as well.

Depression has been linked to heart disease and stroke, which are major health concerns for African Americans. Changes in appetite and sleep patterns, root symptoms of depression, are linked to the hypothalamus, a small structure located at the base of the brain responsible for many basic functions such as sex drive and stress reaction. The hypothalamus also supports the function of the pituitary gland, which in turn regulates key hormones. Abnormalities of pituitary function are related to increased levels of the hormone cortisol, which is related to blood sugar imbalances, and to the hormone catecholamine, which is related to blood pressure changes. Depression causes impaired cognitive performance, lowered immunity, and inflammatory responses in the body.

The Process of Healing
Depression is treatable with the help of a qualified healthcare professional. Treatment includes talk therapy and the incorporation of antidepressants, depending on the severity of the condition. Akinduro, who is a board member of National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide, credits therapy, medication, and finally confronting his father with putting him on the road to recovery. “It was very liberating to confront my past. In therapy I learned that it’s not a moral failing or scar on your character.”

Jones’ healing began when she saw a television interview with author Terrie Williams about her book, Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting (Simon & Schuster; $25). Today, Jones is executive director of the Stay Strong Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that Williams co-founded offering mental health and mentoring programs.

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