Many black men deal with depression, but few are actually willing to talk about it. As men, we believe that we have to be strong and in control of our emotions at all times. When we feel hopeless, helpless, or overwhelmed by despair we tend to deny it or cover it up by drinking too much, behaving recklessly, or exploding with anger. For many men, depression is a sign of weakness because they are unable to suck it up, man up, and get on with their lives as society expects them to.
Depression in Black Men
Black men, in particular, have a hard time discussing or dealing with depression. Cultural norms within the black community have made it difficult for men to openly admit they have a problem.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, comedian Wayne Brady discussed his struggle with depression and the stigma attached to it.
“What kind of man would I sound like if I told somebody ‘I’m so sad. I’m cripplingly sad. I can’t get out of bed. I feel empty. Help me.'” Brady said. “I’d be some kind of sissy. I’d be soft. That’s what you’re taught, and that’s what kills us.”
People were surprised when someone like Brady, who makes his living by making people laugh, revealed that he suffered from depression. But his story isn’t unique.
I first experienced how depression affects men when I was in college and watched my friend deal with it.
I met Lucien when we were freshmen. He was a tall, skinny guy with thick glasses and a head full of thick, curly hair. Despite his geeky appearance, he was quite confident, outgoing, and gregarious. Lucien was also one of the smartest guys I had ever met. He made a perfect score on the SAT and had earned a full scholarship into our university’s honors program.
Lucien and I studied and partied together during our first semester of college, but I noticed a change in him when we returned from Christmas break. He no longer wanted to hang out on the Yard or go to our favorite nightclubs. In fact, he stopped doing all the things college kids do, including going to class. Each day, I’d return to the dorm only to find Lucien curled up in his bed.
“Why are you sleeping all day?” I asked him. “Do you want to flunk out of school?”
“I don’t want to flunk out of school,” he said. “I’ve just been feeling tired. I’ll go to class tomorrow.”
Of course, he didn’t go to class tomorrow or the next day. It got so bad that I had to bring him food every day because he wasn’t eating.
Lucien’s roommate would say things to him like, “You need to man up and snap out of it.” These words did nothing to improve the situation. In fact, they made Lucien withdraw more.
I would sit with him and talk to him every night after I finished my homework. Actually, I did most of the talking while Lucien stared blankly at the TV. His roommate just shook his head in disgust.
“Why don’t you just go home,” he said one night. “You’re wasting everybody’s time.” Lucien’s roommate’s anger stemmed from the fact that he was struggling to pay for college. He saw Lucien as a privileged kid who was squandering a free education.
After several weeks, Lucien finally opened up to me. He had earned a C in one of his math classes. That grade shook him to his core because he had always earned straight As.
“What if I don’t have what it takes to make it in college?” he asked.
I assured him that he did. I wanted to say more, but as a college freshman, I was ill-equipped to offer much advice. I eventually talked to the RA about the situation, and he was able to get some help for Lucien.
I wish I could say that Lucien’s life turned around immediately, but it didn’t. He had to drop out of school and return home for treatment.
As I talked to more men, I began to understand the debilitating effects of depression. My friend Darren, who writes the blog DarrenWCarter.com, for example, first experienced depression as a teenager.
“I was in ninth grade and I was having adolescent issues. My relationships at home weren’t the best and in school. I was liked, but also picked on sometimes at that time. Things got so twisted that I actually believed everyone was against me,” he said. “So I said forget it…(in harsher teenage boy words)! I found a bottle of pills in our medicine cabinet and took them all. To this day I can’t tell you what they were, but I took them. I called the girl who only liked me as a friend and I told her goodbye. I went upstairs and lay on my bed not expecting to wake up and not wanting to wake up.”
Fortunately, Darren survived that suicide attempt, but things didn’t improve as he grew into adulthood.
“One day upon returning home from a day that needed to be forgotten, I sat on the edge of my bed with my firearm,” he said. “I looked at my gun and said to myself, ‘I should have completed this years ago.’ I pulled back the hammer on my pistol and turned it towards my face. But at that moment my cell phone, which was on my lap, lit up and I could see the faces of my daughter and son on the lock screen. Both their smiles seem to jump off the screen and that still small voice within me spoke loudest of all and simply said “No more.” I put my gun aside and lay on the bed crying, but not like when I was a teenager. These were tears of joy, release, and gratefulness. My mind began to think of the great things which were all around me, and all I had accomplished despite the negative aspects of my life. I had only seen glimpses of this in the past, but that moment I saw the whole picture. I went to see a professional and dealt with the thoughts that had plagued me for years. And from that day I never looked back.”
Signs of Depression
Although Darren was able to treat his depression, it’s not always easy to identify depression in men. The National Institute of Mental Health encourages men to look for these signs:
- Feeling sad or empty
- Feeling hopeless, irritable, anxious, or angry
- Loss of interest in work, or once pleasurable activities
- Feeling tired
- Not being able to concentrate or remember details
- Not being able to sleep or sleeping too much
- Overeating or not wanting to eat at all
- Thoughts of suicide
- General irritability
How to Support Someone With Depression
Being able to identify symptoms is important, but being a compassionate, patient, understanding friend can go a long way toward helping someone cope with his or her depression. If you have a loved one who is depressed, HelpGuide.org recommends doing the following things to support him:
- Engage him in conversation and listen carefully. Do not disparage the feelings he expresses, but do point out realities and offer hope.
- Do not ignore remarks about suicide. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or find a suicide helpline outside the U.S. at Befrienders Worldwide.
- Invite him for walks, outings, to the movies, and other activities. Be gently insistent if your invitation is refused.
- Encourage participation in activities that once gave pleasure, such as hobbies, sports, or cultural activities, but do not push him to undertake too much too soon. He needs diversion and company, but too many demands can increase his feelings of failure.
- Do not accuse him of faking his feelings, or expect him ‘to snap out of it.’ Instead, keep reassuring him that, with time and help, he will feel better.
Remember, you can’t “fix” someone else’s depression. You’re not to blame for your loved one’s depression or responsible for his happiness. Ultimately, recovery is in his hands.
I encourage men to be more vocal about this issue and to get more involved. You just may save someone’s life. And if you’re feeling depressed or suicidal, please seek help immediately. Depression isn’t a sign of weakness.