The Insidious Link between Racism and Depression
In June, Janet Jackson revealed to Essence magazine that she spent her 30s battling “intense” depression. Reflecting on those “difficult years,” the singer ticked off the forces behind her struggle: low self-esteem, failing to meet “impossibly high” standards and — “of course” — racism.
While depression can be triggered by several biological and environmental factors, the link between racism and depression “is undeniable,” Suzette Speight, a psychology professor at the University of Akron, tells The Post.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-Americans are significantly more likely to report major depression than whites. Speight, who’s done extensive research on black mental health, says that study analyses “consistently find a link” between symptoms of depression and “experiences of racism.” Those span everything from race-based micro-aggressions — the subtle snubs people of color routinely face out in the world — to racially charged verbal harassment and physical assault.
Washington Heights resident Alexander Hardy can attest to that. In 2014, the writer was living in Panama City, Panama, teaching and building up his freelance portfolio. Then, depression struck.
“In the beginning, I didn’t even know what it was,” Hardy, now 33, tells The Post. “I would lie on the floor, hyperventilating, just trying to calm myself down. I was crying a lot and not functioning. I couldn’t get through things without going down this whole rabbit hole of, ‘You’re a piece of s–t.’”
Looking back, he says, the typical stresses of moving to a new city and establishing a career were compounded by racial anxiety.
Even in his best suit, Hardy and his dreadlocks stood out in Panama’s capital city, where less than 10 per cent of the population is black. “I got questioned a lot,” he says. “It kept me constantly on edge — getting those looks, getting stopped by the police to show my passport papers.” That plus trying to do “too many things at once” pushed him over the edge: During a phone call with his parents, he confessed, “If I don’t leave, I’m probably going to kill myself.” Two weeks later, he was back stateside, on a therapist’s couch.
Hardy was lucky: He had a good support network, and landed a helpful counselor right away. But that’s not the norm for many African-Americans struggling with depression.
“There is still a large stigma related to mental-health conditions in the black community,” says Joy Harden Bradford, an Atlanta psychologist and the host of the “Therapy for Black Girls” podcast. She believes many depressed people of color suffer in silence because of that, and research backs her up: Multiple studies have found that African-Americans are less likely than whites to seek treatment for mental-health issues.
Those who push past stigma to seek treatment may face a second obstacle: money. Mental-health therapy is notoriously expensive, and African-Americans are 7.3 times likelier to live in high-poverty neighborhoods with limited access to mental-health services, according to a 2005 analysis of US Census Bureau data.
Then, there are the cultural hurdles that crop up during treatment. Only 16.4 percent of psychologists identified as members of minority groups in a 2015 American Psychological Association report. Given the field’s lack of diversity, “when you finally get to an office, you might be faced with a clinician who’s not culturally competent,” Speight adds. “They might not ask you about racism, or might dismiss your experience.”
Worse, still, is the possibility that a therapist misdiagnoses a person of color because their depression manifests unusually. “Culture influences how symptoms are expressed,” Speight says. “So, instead of being sad, I might be agitated. Instead of crying, I might have headaches.” But textbooks tend to default to caucasian symptoms, she says — which could lead to black patients’ issues slipping by untreated.
It’s not an easy path to treatment. But Hardy urges depression sufferers to keep pushing through.
When he finally got the help he needed, “it was like the sky opened up,” he says. “The fog lifted. I was back to feeling like a human being.”
The change was so dramatic that it inspired him to launch Getsomejoy, a campaign that aims to connect people of color to mental-health resources. The response, he says, has been overwhelming. It’s made him realize that “black folk don’t talk about this stuff enough.”
“We’re all dealing with something,” Hardy says. “Know that you don’t have to be a warrior. It’s OK to not be OK.”
Culled from New York Post