Last weekend I was walking around feeling, well, down. Sorta moody. Bummed out, if you will. So I took to social media to describe my temperament, explaining that the day hadn’t gone well and I was feeling alone.
Almost instantly, friends began to swoop down on me, calling me, texting me, messaging me. Even people who I haven’t spoken to in quite some time. It felt good to know that people had my back in times of trouble.
But after sending out a disclaimer that I was just having it a little rough and that I intended no alarm, I began to think about the issue of depression among Black men and that many brothers may be experiencing this on a grand scale and do not have the luxury of a phalanx of caring, nosy friends to support them.
They may instead internalize what’s eating them and turn the knob up on a pressure cooker that eventually blasts. That’s probably an understatement. In fact, it’s a problem facing so many Black men that it’s likely grossly underdiagnosed, unacknowleged, and ignored.
Case in point: in Queens, N.Y., a man was arrested Tuesday and charged with the stabbing of two small children in the elevator of their Brooklyn building, with one dying. He is also suspected in two other stabbings in New York, another of which was also fatal. The man, Daniel St. Hubert (pictured), once did time for trying to strangle his own mother. His violent past and rap sheet amounted to time in psychiatric treatment, but were reportedly not enough to fall under state requirements for mandatory care upon release.
He hasn’t been convicted of these latest crimes, but could an early depression diagnosis have prevented his earlier offenses and those he is accused of?
Although there really isn’t much research in to it yet, my hunch is that depression is a major factor affecting the progression and performance of Black men and possibly the least noticed in terms of causality.
In other words, maybe it’s possible that depression — described by the National Institutes of Health as a mood disorder that can affect a person’s ability to sleep, eat, or function normally, — is an ailment that is massive and detrimental in the African-American community, and even though it affects both genders, it serves as an 800-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to Black men.
In this regard, it’s possible that it could be a root cause behind the disproportionate number of violent crimes, school expulsions, domestic violence, and ultimately incarcerations in our communities, cyclically self-perpetuating.
The numbers aren’t pretty.
There has been precious little research done on depression and Black men, but a 2007 study coming from the American Medical Association showed that while the prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder was highest for Whites in their research sample, about 18 percent, it was most chronic for African Americans and Caribbean Americans, 56.5 and 56 percent, respectively — and only about 45 percent of African Americans and 24 percent of Caribbean Americans in the study got any treatment for it.
Also, a 2010 CDC study shows that African Americans have the highest rate of suicide, at more than 12 percent, despite having a lower lifetime risk, but suicide is the third-leading cause of death for Black males ages 15-24.
So I began to wonder who is out there talking about this issue? Is there enough discussion and what are the solutions? I came across filmmakers Kenneth “K.T.” Nelson and Squeaky Moore who have teamed up with publicist and author Terrie Williams, who in her book “Black Pain,” wrote about her own bout with depression, for a documentary they are currently producing and funding called “Face of Darkness,” due out in May 2015, which speaks to this very topic.
Nelson was inspired to speak out after experiencing depression himself, particularly after the suicide of his friend, actor Lee Thompson Young. “When you’re depressed, it’s paralyzing,” he told me in a phone interview along with his co-producer, Moore. “For a lot of people, some say you need to ‘man up.’ For Black men we are taught to not deal with our feelings.
Yeah, that’s true. I even told myself to “man up” last weekend, but then I wondered how many times had I flown off the handle when I kept it all bottled in rather than talking about it. If that’s the case, how many men turned their depression into anger, resulting in violence? How many lives could have been saved, caps and gowns been worn, or prison beds left unoccupied if brothers just had the chance to open up? Nelson echoed what I was thinking.
“After my friend died by suicide, I remember talking to friends about it and discovered that we were holding in things that we were not revealing to each other. So when we first started this project, I wasn’t going to talk about myself, but I had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment and said I have to reveal my vulnerability and it was a pain that I turned into power.”
Moore, who said she has experienced depression and panic attacks herself, said it’s difficult to gather statistical information on depression and Black men because, due to stigmatization, so few Black people seek treatment. “Its hard to get a statistics because as Black people, we aren’t getting the kind of help we need to gather metrics,” she explained. “We don’t get the help we need because of lack of insurance or socioeconomic status, there’s so much adding to the issue.”
Dr. David Malebranche, an internist and primary care physician at the University of Pennsylvania, has treated the issue of depression among Black men and agrees that it is largely underdiagnosed and that’s because so many of us won’t open up about our feelings.
“A lot of times it’s issues around gender performance, expectations, how we look,” Malebranche said. “With Black men, people don’t want to see us as depressed and it’s not on the radar for health care providers to see us as depressed.
“I used to work at (Atlanta’s) Grady Memorial Hospital and most of the patients were Black. Many came in with traditional and non-traditional symptoms of depression. One man came in to see the residents, he was about 6′ 3,” 250 pounds. He complained about headaches, the medicines he was taking weren’t helping. I came in to the room and asked how everything was going at home and he broke down crying. It turned out it was the anniversary of his mother’s death.
“So sometimes it’s the simplest question of how’s it going at home that opens up doors,” he said. “But it’s much easier to pathologize people and say there is something wrong with them instead of saying they may be depressed. You don’t see that with a lot of Black men, so it’s an incomplete narrative. We have to take out our cameras and our pens and tell those stories ourselves. We can’t wait on major media to change that.”
But at least the film being made by Nelson, Moore, and Williams begins to discuss the role of the Black male narrative in depression treatment. For them, the places where we socialize are where the message should be planted. “Our idea is to go in to places like the barbershop and the churches and really dig deep there,” Moore said. “We understand it’s a reality-driven world. We are going in and meeting people where [they] are in the world.”
“You’d be surprised,” Nelson said. “People will tell you what they are going through if you just let them know. We want people to know it’s okay to communicate how you feel and you won’t be looked down upon.”
Now for the record, for me to “man up” is to draw inner strength to withstand adversity. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s something anyone can do. It’s a cold world out there and the times I’ve heard that did me good.
But it’s not advisable to do it while forgetting to communicate stress or sadness. I’ve witnessed that myself among a number of friends and it never ended well.
But we also live in communities where Black men are told to be stoic and unexpressive, where being seen as weak can be lethal, where environmental factors like a simple lack of sunlight or living in a food desert can cause vitamin deficiencies that contribute to depression, and where proper therapy for mental health issues can come too late and result in violent consequences, perhaps not unlike the situation allegedly involving Daniel St. Hubert.
It’s not weak to scream, to express onesself in the face of angst — even in the ‘hood. Hell, that’s why we came up with hip-hop in the first place. However, you let it out, it’s better to talk to somebody, whomever that might be: a wife, a best friend, a sibling, even a barber, or bartender.
Because at the end of the day, the other side of “man up”… is “man down.”
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter: @madisonjgray