Sunday, October 21, 2018
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For African Americans, depression is more than a case of the 'blues'
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Dr. Juanita Benton is a clinical psychiatrist at North Point Wellness center in north Minneapolis. (Brandt Williams)
Some mental health professionals say depression in African Americans is likely at the core of many other problems that disproportionately affect black communities. On Thursday, mental health professionals from around the country will meet in Minneapolis to discuss how to combat suicide and depression among African American youth and other youth of color.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The overall numbers are relatively low. However, in Minnesota, suicide is the second leading cause of death for American Indian, Latino and Southeast Asian males between the ages of 15 and 24.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young black males. Homicide is number one. The link between depression and suicide is well known. Some mental health professionals, like Dr. Alvin Poussaint suspects there's also a link between depression and homicide.

"I think it's worth considering, whether a lot of young men in the black community who are homicidal...have the same type of feelings about themselves as if they were clinically depressed," he says.

Poussaint is a professor of psychiatry and Associate Dean at Harvard Medical School. He's one of several nationally known experts in the field of black psychiatry who will be lecturing at the Shades of Blue conference.

"Many of them feel a sense of hopelessness," says Poussaint. "They devalue their own life. They feel there's nothing in the future for them, which will make them adopt attitudes or feel more ready to pull the trigger on someone."

Poussaint says more study is needed into links between depression and violence in the black community. He says he hopes the conference will help mental health professionals of all colors understand how culture and depression intersect and sometimes clash.

For instance, Poussaint says studies have found that most African Americans see depression as a sign of personal weakness, not a physical condition.

"And I think that has to do in part with expectations among black Americans," says Poussaint. "For instance they have been in a sense trained to expect hard times in life -- that kind of, 'nobody knows the trouble I've seen' type of feeling."

When people feel (depressed), they don't necessarily have a lot to lose. They're risky with their sexual choices. They're risky in that they use drugs or mix drug cocktails or that they overindulge in alcohol.
- Dr. Juanita Benton

So, if you're black and you don't see a psychiatrist or a counselor, you may end up seeing a police officer.

"A large number of these young people are growing up in social and community conditions which are negative," says Lt. Medeira Arradondo.

Arradondo has been a police officer for 16 years. He agrees with Poussaint's assessment. Arradondo says the combination of depression and the history of tension between African Americans and police officers can be volatile.

"Poverty, the despair, depression...exists and has existed for a long time in the community," he says. "So now when you're called to deal with that situation, all of those things which that child has been modeled to view you as - it can lead to at times some very adversarial conditions."

Arradondo will participating in the Shades of Blue conference as a panelist.

Dr. Juanita Benton, a clinical psychiatrist at North Point Wellness center in north Minneapolis, says depression can lead young black men to act out in other self-destructive ways. North Point provides a wide range of medical, dental and mental health services primarily for low income people. It is also co-sponsoring the day-long suicide prevention conference.

"When people feel (depressed), they don't necessarily have a lot to lose," says Benton. "They're risky with their sexual choices. They're risky in that they use drugs or mix drug cocktails or that they overindulge in alcohol."

Benton says she's hopeful that African Americans are slowly beginning to take depression more seriously and see it as a medical condition like a broken leg. It's one that can't be prayed away.

"One of the things we're seeing in the black church now is that many of our ministers are saying, yes you can pray and ask God for help. But you can also enlist the help of the people that god put here that are trained to help you. And I think that's a big step forward for us because I don't think people had that in the past," she says.

Benton says in the past African Americans too often mistook depression as simply, "a case of the blues."

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