Kendrick Lamar, Steve Smith Sr., Janet Jackson and Michelle Williams have all shared struggles with depression. Most recently, acclaimed actress and philanthropist Taraji P. Henson announced her new foundation to support mental health in the Black community. Because African Americans experience high levels of stress and may be especially likely to experience serious depression relative to Whites but are less likely to get help, it is time to talk about mental health.
Different from the occasional sadness or grief that most people experience at times in life, clinical depression is one of the most common psychological disorders. In 2016, at least 16 million adults in the United States were affected. The consequences can be devastating if left untreated. It prevents people from living their best lives and make it difficult to function. It can also contribute to suicide, which is twice as high among Black children than White children.
Recognize the Symptoms
Clinical depression may not present the same for everyone affected. For example, men may report more anger or irritability rather than sadness. Some people have more physical symptoms than difficulties with their mood. There are different types of depression and the severity ranges from mild to severe. Some people may not be able to articulate how they feel, but they know they are dealing with a ‘psychological blow’ that does not improve with time despite their best efforts. If you or someone you know are experiencing some or most of the following symptoms most days for two weeks or longer, an evaluation by a healthcare professional is needed:
• Persistent sadness, anxiety or emptiness
• Changes in appetite or weight
• Sleep problems – too much or too little sleep
• Low energy or Fatigue (despite sleeping)
• Irritability or anger
• Thinking or speaking slower than normal
• Feelings of guilt, shame or helplessness
• Problems with concentration, memory, or making decisions
• Thoughts of death or suicide
• Physical symptoms that do not improve with medical treatment (e.g. pain, aches, cramps, digestive difficulties)
• Lack of interest in activities typically enjoyed
Anyone can develop clinical depression. Some people are more vulnerable to developing clinical depression if they have a family history of depression, have experienced trauma, significant life changes and stress and have a medical condition or are on certain medications.
The good news is that treatment for clinical depression is effective for the majority of people suffering. Because psychological conditions may present as physical problems or may be due to a medical condition, it is important to be evaluated by a healthcare professional who can provide adequate diagnosis and provide treatment options specific to you and your symptoms. Improvement in symptoms takes time and some symptoms will likely improve before your mood lifts. If initial treatment does not appear to be helping, do not give up as you may respond better to other treatments. Also, if you have been prescribed a medication, do not abruptly stop taking them without the help of a medical professional as you may experience side effects.
For some people, psychotherapy or ‘talk therapy’ alone will be effective for treating depression while psychotherapy and medications combined may be most helpful for others. Psychotherapy is important because it helps you to cope more effectively with stress, identify and better express emotions, improve problem-solving, and change patterns that may worsen symptoms.
Stay connected to supportive people and do not isolate yourself. Often people cope with clinical depression by withdrawing from others, eating unhealthy foods, becoming sedentary and binge drinking, all of which makes symptoms worse. Consequently, a healthy diet, increased physical movement and minimizing use of alcohol is important. Also, try to limit excessive exposure to negative or toxic activities (e.g. watching hours of 24-hour news per day) and making major life decisions until your symptoms improve.
Seek help from your healthcare professional. You can also identify services from the Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/
Having thoughts of death or suicide? the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
National Institute of Mental Health (2018). Depression. Retrieved Aug. 15, 2018, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml
Lekeisha A. Sumner, PhD, ABPP is a board-certified clinical psychologist. She is the immediate former Director of Health Psychology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a clinical faculty member at UCLA.