Saturday, January 26, 2008

Stigmata

I have to force myself to write this blog. It's hard to write about it, even though I have suffered from depression for years. I know the stigma and shame of being female, black, and blue. I admit I’m afraid of being judged, vilified, or laughed at. We as black people often look askance at each other if one brings up the subject. But, most often we don’t talk about it. Like many of the issues we don’t talk about in our community; homosexuality, AIDS, incest or sexual abuse – we choose to ignore it or vilify the victim instead.
I didn’t talk to my mother about my depression. I didn’t talk to her about a lot of things that a mother and daughter should talk about. We didn’t have that kind of relationship. I didn’t talk about it with either of my grandmother’s – both of whom I was closer to than my own mother. From my mother’s mother – I learned how cook – mouth watering greens - picking fresh dandelions from the yard to add to the pot; fried fish seasoned like they do down in New Orleans, and succulent, tender baked chicken, and cornbread. I also learned a lot about men from her. “Don’t let a man know too soon that you’re interested in him. Let him tell you first,” she would tell me, while we worked in her small hot kitchen that smelled of hot cross buns, sweet potato, strawberry rhubarb, and lemon meringue pies and pound cakes. But, I never discussed with her the overwhelming sadness and depression that had begin to plague me in my teen years.
Nor did I discuss my sadness with my father’s mother who was a Pentecostal minister. I grew up saying morning and evening prayers with her on our knees side by side. I knew she would start quoting scriptures and tell me to pray about it instead. But, I needed someone to talk to me about the feelings I was having. I wasn’t ready to take it to the Lord yet.
And I never talked about it with my Aunt Nadine to whom I was also close. Even when we sat and watched tv together. Or the times I would come in from work and go straight to bed and she would check on me to see if I was alright -I never said anything. I guess because no one in my family ever talked about being depressed or blue, not to me anyway. I felt like I was the only one who had this monkey on my back. If there was someone with depression – I never heard about it. I was considered the black sheep of the family, so maybe that’s why I didn’t talk about it.

According to mentalhealthamerican.net the myths and stigma that surround depression create needless pain and confusion, and can keep people from getting proper treatment. The following statements reflect some common misconceptions about African Americans and depression:
“Why are you depressed?
If our people could make it through slavery, we can make it through anything.”
“When a black woman suffers from a mental disorder, the opinion is that she is weak. And weakness in black women is intolerable.”
“You should take your troubles to Jesus, not some stranger/psychiatrist.”
Shauna Curphey, a WeNews correspondent wrote in an article about depression and black women - In California, African American women have the shortest life expectancy among women of all racial and ethnic groups in the state. They also have the highest mortality rate for heart disease and stroke and the highest prevalence of high blood pressure and obesity. Recent research indicates that mental health plays a role in these health disparities in California--and across the nation. But while many black women know and discuss the threats to their physical health, when it comes to mental health, there's silence and inaction.
Latonya Slack, executive director of the California Black Women's Health Project, an Inglewood, Calif., community-health organization, says "There's a fear of putting our business in the street . . . of somehow revealing too much.”
Lorraine Cole, president of the Black Women's Health Imperative, the Washington, D.C.-based parent organization of the California Black Women's Health Project, agrees. "There's a deep-seated feeling that seeking professional help is a sign of weakness," she said.
Slack and Cole, both African American women, have lead efforts to address the physical, mental and spiritual health needs of black women. Both have commissioned studies that revealed many black women are struggling with mental health issues but are not seeking professional help. They and others see improving black women's access to mental health treatment as a crucial element to addressing the serious, but often manageable, illnesses plaguing their physical health.
One study found that the proportion of African Americans who feared mental-health treatment was more than twice that of whites, according to the surgeon general's report. Part of the fear stems from wariness of the medical establishment that arises from past abuses, said Slack, such as the Tuskegee experiment. (In 1932, the federal government sponsored a study to examine the impact of untreated syphilis involving black men. The experiment went on until 1972 without the test subjects' knowledge and most of the subjects died without receiving treatment.)
As a result of the distrust engendered by the now-infamous experiment and the stigma associated with seeking help, many black women rely on spiritual leaders and community members to handle personal problems. There's also an added pressure from the ethic of the strong black woman, a cultural value that promotes toughness and self-sacrifice. "There are so many women who are not diagnosed or are under-diagnosed who are just existing on a thread," Slack concluded. " . . . They think 'My mother suffered. My grandmother suffered. It's just the lot of black women in America. It doesn't have to be that way."

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