The Invisible 90 Percent: Changing The Narrative On Black Men & Depression

Black and white image of an african american manOctober is Depression Awareness Month and Kid Cudi’s recent tweet about his personal struggle with depression has brought the issue of depression and specifically depression in African-American men to the forefront. Depression as a disorder has been recognized for centuries with many documented cases of what was then called Melancholia.  While conversations about depression have become more commonplace in the general population, there is still an undeniable stigma when it comes to discussing depression in the African-American community. This is especially true when it comes to depression and African-American men.

What Is Depression?

Okay, I am a doctor so I’ve got to get some of the nerdy doctor stuff out of the way. Before we discuss depression, we really should define what depression is.  Depression is not just feeling blue or down from time to time, everyone feels this way at some point in their lives. Depression, rather, is a long-term condition (lasting months to years) that results from an imbalance in the brain’s neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine) combined with genetic factors, life stressors and other medical conditions. Depression leads to an inability to function normally in daily life. The most common symptoms of depression include:

1. Sleep disturbances (either insomnia or hypersomnia);

2. A loss of interest in activities that used to be or should be pleasurable;

3. Feelings of intense guilt and/or sadness;

4. Loss of energy/lethargy;

5. Inability to concentrate or focus on tasks/work;

6. Changes in appetite (either loss of appetite or over-eating);

7. Feelings of irritability and/or anxiety;

8. Thoughts of self harm and/or suicidal thoughts (passive or active);

Depression also often has physical symptoms including:

1. Headaches;

2. Muscle, back and joint pain;

3. Chest pain;

4. Abdominal pain;

5. Digestive problems;

The incidence of depression varies widely with the United States being the most depressed country (approximately 17% of Americans report at least one depressive episode in their lifetime) and Japan being the least depressed country (only 3% of its population report at least one major depressive episode in their lifetime).

Women are twice as likely to be affected by depression than men, and while African Americans only make up 12% of the U.S. population, we account for 33% of U.S. depression cases. While we are more likely to experience depression, we are less likely to seek treatment. As a matter of fact, only 10% of African-American men seek treatment for depression. That means that 90% of African American man with depression never report their symptoms and never seek medical care. Like most things in medicine and life however, this statistic doesn’t just exist in a vacuum.