Confronting Reality

Black Men And Depression


February 06, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

It got to the point where any self-assurance John Head enjoyed from achieving the good life was no match for his depression. Once the demon that haunted his psyche for more than 20 years won that battle, it waged war with his will to live.

For years, the award-winning writer and author of the book Standing in the Shadows: Understanding and Overcoming Depression in Black Men (Broadway, 2004, $22.95) dispelled thoughts of suicide, unaware he was coping with clinical depression.

His untreated illness persuaded him to turn his back on a loving wife, three sons and friends for a life of seclusion in a two-story apartment.

Head soon went from occasionally thinking about suicide to contemplating, visualizing it -- so much so that one day the then 44-year-old gathered rope and secured one end to an upstairs balcony railing.

Once he was certain he had the proper length for a self-hanging, Head dropped the rope to the floor below, went downstairs and positioned a chair beneath the rope.

Then he stood on the chair, gripped the rope with both hands and measured it for a loop.

"At some point, for some reason, I stepped away. That was probably the worst point of the depression," says Head, 53, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist and editorial board member.

Head then sought and received proper treatment. As someone who grew up in environments where depression was rarely discussed and often considered taboo, Head decided to call attention to depression-related issues among black men.

Published in August, Standing in the Shadows is an often personal look at how a segment of the population struggles with depression as well as a probe into the illness' possible causes.

For Head, the severe effects of the illness required a powerful mental image -- his three young boys -- to rescue him from tragedy.

"I grew up without my dad at home. I knew how that felt," he says. "I did not want my sons to go through the same thing, only worse. Not only would they not have me present, but they would have the knowledge and burden of how I left them."

"I realized I was dealing with something I couldn't handle on my own. If I didn't get help, there would be a next time, and next time I wouldn't step away," he says.

Head returned to his family, sought treatment for his illness, was placed on medication and began talk therapy.

Standing in the Shadows traces Head's steps in his attempt to discover the origins of his depression, and argues that depression in African-Americans in general can be traced to slavery and its byproducts -- a breakdown of the family structure, racism, oppression and discrimination.

Head argues that psychological strains from slavery and racism have greatly influenced the mindsets of even the most successful African-Americans. He asserts that black males are especially susceptible because of societal fears that have prompted such responses as lynching in years past and racial profiling today.

Head grew up in rural Jackson, Ga. He recalls periods of intense racial oppression there, including the time when the brother of a preschool classmate, an African-American who had dated a white girl, disappeared after being released from jail and was ultimately found dead on a back road. He had been struck by a car and then repeatedly run over.

"No one was arrested for the crime," he says in his book. "People in the black community talked about getting something done, but nothing ever became of it. I saw how little power the grown-ups around me had, and, somewhere in the recesses of my subconscious, I must have drawn the conclusion I had no power at all.

"A lot of people have no trouble grasping the physical pain of slavery ... but they don't think about the psychological damage done," Head continues. "Dr. Martin Luther King said that the purpose of racism is to instill in people 'a degenerating sense of nobody-ness.' To me, that's a good description of depression."

That sentiment, he says, is often fostered among African-American men who are part of a culture that doesn't openly discuss mental illness or believes many of its problems can be solved by the church.

Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, echoes many of Head's assertions.

"Different people suffer it [depression] in different propensities, but unless you're talking about a bipolar disorder or a major, major depression, which tends to have genetic properties, clinical depression is a working between your environment and your biology, and for some it's more environment."

Co-author of the book Lay My Burden Down, which dispels myths about suicide in the black community, Poussaint says that since 1980, suicide has been the third-leading cause of death among African-American males between 15-24.

But he says research regarding depression that is broken down by race is rare and adds that two thirds of African-Americans don't believe depression is an illness at all.

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