Like many women in the African -American community, Hyman suffered from a silent illness that runs rampant and violently claims lives.
Carl C. Bell, M.D., president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago, says 20,000 out of every 100,000 African- Americans suffer with depression, which breaks down to approximately 20 percent within the community. This number may be larger because of how taboo the topic is among African -Americans.
“I think the illness is taboo because mental illness is stigmatizing, and if you are black, poor, and mentally ill, there are three stigmas, and that is too much,” comments Bell. “This is an unfortunate product of taking a deficit model, instead of approaching problems from a strength base.”
Jourdan Atkinson of New York says she didn’t seek help at first because she felt that connotations associated with depression included “being crazy” or that it was “a white thing,” which, she adds, is how most African -Americans feel about the disease. As one whose depression stems from her traumatic childhood, Atkinson says she did not want to associate herself with it.
“My mother suffered from depression and never addressed it,” says the 27-year-old. “It was always there, and it’s as if it was sent to me.”
As a topic that many African- Americans women shy away from, many within the community learn and teach future generations how to deal with those feelings of depression, whose roots are traced back to slavery and proceed throughout history during the Great Depression, , the Civil Rights Movement and still exists today.
“We’re taught to hold everyone’s problems, internalize everything and the church will solve all of our problems,” says Atkinson.
New York public relations adviser and author Terrie Williams says the reason for the epidemic of depression within the African American community is because people are numbing themselves from the pain they are experiencing and are self-medicating it with drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, and various acts of violence, including suicide.
“When you’re the strong one, you think you’re weak when you ask for help,” Williams says.
Williams wrote the book, Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, after receiving thousands of letters from others dealing with depression following an Essence magazine article in which she went public about how she suffers from the disease. The businesswoman, whose clients include Eddie Murphy, Janet Jackson, Russell Simmons and other celebrities, admits her bout with depression was present in her childhood, which included parents who were both abandoned by their fathers.
“I was never encouraged to express myself emotionally,” adds Williams. “It’s just the natural order of things to be hurt by my parents. Hurting people hurt people.”
Hard work and determination followed Williams throughout childhood as the perfect student and class president, continuing in college as she studied sociology and psychology, and into her professional career. However, Williams says she always knew something was wrong in college, but could not put her finger on it. After sleeping excessively, in addition to other symptoms, Williams saw a social worker while she attended graduate school and spoke to others to grasp an understanding of her feelings, yet not one person said to her she suffered from depression, she says.
“You keep on and keep on and keep on until God brings you to your knees,” Williams admits.
Five years ago, Williams hit that point during a telephone conversation with a friend.
“My friend was talking to me, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying and I began to weep uncontrollably,” admits Williams.
The next day, Williams’ friend took her to a psychologist, which Williams says saved her. She adds that she continues to see her psychologist and takes medication in order to remain clear and focused for everyday living.
“There are answers, there is help and it is treatable,” says Williams.
Nadine Thompson, founder and CEO of Soul Purpose Lifestyle Company, says she believes medication for the disease is important and makes a dramatic difference, but it is also imperative to find the right one (, which may take a few attempts), and to have great physician care. Thompson speaks from experience as one who started to suffer from depression about 15 years ago because she was overworked and exhausted. Her former company, Warm Spirit, which started in the basement of her home, grew to gross almost $2 million a month. Two years ago, through misguided decisions, her business partner drove the company into bankruptcy, which catapulted a significant part of Thompson’s mental and emotional stress.
Four years ago, Thompson was entangled in a lawsuit with an airline she says involved discrimination against her and lost the dispute.
“It took a toll on me emotionally, and it manifested itself with overeating,” says Thompson. “These life crises can push you over the edge and you may not know it’s depression.”
Thompson admits speaking about the topic of depression in an abstract way in the African -American community, for both women and men, does not produce positive results. She says more mental health clinics are needed in the community, and screening for the illness in medical facilities should be implemented.
Like Williams, Thompson continues to take medication and visits a psychologist to take care of herself.
“If I can pay for video games for my kids, then I can pay for therapy for myself.”
Photography by Billy Montgomery