African Americans &
Denying the Darkness
Rick Wallace, Ph.D. 4/1/13 [Course t
African Americans & Depression:
Denying the Darkness
Dr. Rick Wallace, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2016 by Rick Wallace
All rights reserved.
Several days ago I published a paper entitled, “Molestation, Incest and Rape in African
American Families,” I spoke of this devastating plague in the African American community as
the elephant in the room — a plague that is wreaking havoc at astronomical levels. Well, one of
the problems with attempting to address the troubled plight of African Americans is the fact that
the enigmatic issues that serve to subdue our efforts of universal elevation are multitudinous.
One of the primary symptoms associated with the trauma of incest and child molestation is
depression, and much in the same way that blacks go to great lengths to pretend that incest is not
an issue of relevance among us, we emphatically deny the impact that depression, as a mental
disorder, is having on us as a collective.
The Stigma of Depression Among African Americans
Much of the denial surrounding depression is a direct response to the negative stigma associated
with it and other mental disorders, such as bi-polar disorder (formerly known as manic
depressive disorder) (Staff E. , 2016). Blacks seem to have an almost inherent belief that
admission to experiencing any symptoms associated with depression is an admission of
weakness or faithlessness (Staff M. , 2016). While much of the psychotherapeutic community
has attempted to create an inclusive treatment environment, their efforts can only be viewed as a
failure as far as people of color are concerned. It is estimated that only one-third of African
American people who are victimized by some form of mental psychosis will seek professional
help (Staff, 2014).
A Marked Increase in Suicide Among Black Youth
One thing that is saddening is the fact that there is an alarming increase in suicide rates among
African Americans that no one wants to talk about. To exacerbate the matter, the rate of suicide
among African American teens is on the rise (Joe, 2009). While suicide among African
American girls has been an issue for some time, there has been a significant increase in the
number of suicides of African American boys (Storrs, 2015). Unfortunately, the stigma
associated with depression often leaves these young African American children to suffer in
silence, based on the belief that no one will understand.
Something that is alarming is the fact that while blacks sit around pretending that we don’t have
a problem, the suicide rate among African American youth has more than doubled over the last
20 years — surpassing the rates among white children, which actually dropped during this same
period (Storrs, 2015).
While suicide among Black teens is always a concern, simply based on the stresses and
challenges associated with the transition from childhood to adulthood, what is frightening is the
rapid rise in the suicide rate among black children between the ages of 5-11. When it comes to
the suicide rate of this age group, the overall rate remained steady, but the rate of suicide among
black boys in this same age group nearly doubled from almost 18,000 per one million to 34,700
per one million (Storrs, 2015).
The problem with the rise in suicide rates is that, outside of the world of science, there is not true
effort to understand the etiology that is fueling this increase. It has long been the common
response of blacks that contemporary black youth lack the toughness and resilience that the
generation before them possessed. Children who suffer from depression are considered weak,
and often they are mistreated and abused in attempts to “toughen” them up. Attempting to
toughen up a victim of depression can be met with dire consequences.
Not only have I counseled parents who have lost children to suicide, but I personally have
several close friends who have lost a child to suicide.
We are in Denial
It is also important to understand that while we are talking primarily about black youth to this
point, depression and suicide among blacks, in general, has become an increasing problem (Staff
M. , 2016; Staff E. , 2016). In fact, there has been a significant increase in suicides among black
males (Storrs, 2015).
The recent death of Sandra Bland while in custody in a Texas jail sparked national interest and a
demand for justice. While being 100 percent in favor of seeking justice for Sandra, the researcher
in me, could not help but study the response of the black community to the official cause of
death being listed as suicide. The view of the vast majority of African Americans who voiced
their opinions insisted that it was not even possible for Sandra took her own life, even after the
independent autopsy ordered by her family came to the same conclusion — death by
asphyxiation, as a result of suicide.
The postulations that Sandra Bland did not kill herself were not based on an understanding of
psychology, depression nor suicidal ideation, but on a primary belief that black people who
appear happy or even defiant could not possibly be suicidal. In all fairness, these postulations
were also driven by an additional force, the distrust for law enforcement. It was just easier to
believe that she was murdered than to face the possibility that she may have taken her own life.
Am I suggesting that Sandra Bland took her life? Not with certainty. There are simply too many
variables that cannot be effectively examined at a distance, and my distrust of law enforcement
carries immense gravity. However, here is what I can share. I did not rely solely on the reports of
social media. I decided to conduct my own forensic psychological examination with the
information that was being made public record. I will first admit that consideration has to be
given to the fact that law enforcement is not going to leak information that would be detrimental
to them, so the information that I had access to had to be examined under the scrutiny of
suspicion. One of the most telling pieces of evidence was a recording of Sandra’s last phone call,
which went out to a friend that she was trying to reach. She ended up leaving a voicemail, and
the tone in this voicemail spoke volumes.
I also evaluated the activities that transpired from the time that she was arrested until her body
was wheeled out of her cell. Her body language on videos, and her voice on phone calls, reveal a
decline state of mind — she had gone from defiant to despondent. I also visited her page and
went through it fastidiously. What I can say with a certain level of certainty is that she suffered
from depression, and that much of that suffering took place in silence and loneliness. That
loneliness was intensified during her stay in jail, as friend after friend failed to come through for
What I can also say is that the jail, and its personnel, still carry some level of culpability in her
death, simply because she admitted that she not only suffered from depression, but she also
admitted that she had attempted suicide in the past. She should have been placed on a suicide
watch, which should not have been that difficult, considering the size of that jail. At the very
least, anything that she could have harmed herself with should have been removed from her cell.
Why am I speaking about such a sensitive topic as the death of Sandra Bland? It is because the
rampant denial of blacks concerning depression makes us more vulnerable to the pestilential
mechanisms of the disease. Instead of dismissing the rise in suicides among blacks as a form of
weakness, we must learn to ask why. Everything has a cause, and ignoring or dismissing the act
does not extirpate the consequence.
We must take the time to understand and confront depression, if we expect to successfully
overcome it. We cannot ignore or dismiss this condition into obscurity, we are going to have to
confront it, or we will continue to see a rise in the rate of suicide. While suicide has been a
topical focus thus far, it is worth noting that not all bouts with depression will produce suicidal
ideations; however, the numbers do reveal that suicidal ideation is prevalent among certain
groups, especially teens.
Understanding the Basic Function of Depression
Despite common belief, clinical depression is more than the result of the weight of life’s ups and
downs. Everyone experiences being mentally depressed at some point in life, after all, life is
replete with moments of happiness, sadness, loss, accomplishment and more, and it is reasonable
to assume that a person’s state of mind may vacillate based on the fluctuation of these different
realities. However, clinical depression is more emphatic in its impact and duration. It can
manifest itself as chronic or recurring, and it can be absolutely unforgiving.
Clinical depression should not be viewed as a personal weakness, gracelessness or faithlessness.
It is actually a common and very serious medical condition. Clinical depression is a condition
that impacts the entire being of a person, including mood, body, thoughts and behavior. Without
seeking the appropriate treatment, the symptoms can last for weeks, months or even years.
Fortunately, most cases of depression, even severe cases, can be successfully treated.
Myths Surrounding Depression
Unfortunately, the myths associated with depression place a stigma on the condition that creates
unnecessary confusion and pain — and it keeps people from seeking the necessary support and
help they need to improve. The following statements reflect just some of the misconceptions
associated with depression. “Why are you depressed, just get over it?” “If our people can survive
slavery, we can make it through anything.” When a black woman suffers with depression, she is
considered to be weak, and weakness is something that is not tolerated in black women.” “You
should take your troubles to Jesus, not some stranger (or the ever famous “Jesus will fix it”).”
The last statement is not to insult the faith of some, but it is to highlight the need for blacks to see
the severity of this condition and treat it accordingly. No one would look at a person who is
apparently experiencing a heart attack or suffering from severe head trauma and say, “give it to
Jesus.” These people would be immediately rushed to a trauma center for treatment. This is the
same approach that must be taken with depression.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Depression
Studies have proven that culture can affect the manner in which a person suffering with
depression will exhibit their symptoms. One of the most common things I hear from the family
and friends of victims of suicide who my counsel, is that they had no idea, they did not notice
any signs or symptoms of depression or suicidal ideation. Following are a number of signs and
symptoms that are associated with depression that you should be aware of.
Reduced appetite and unexplained weight loss, or conversely, an inexplicable increase in
appetite and weight gain
A mood of sadness, anxiety or emptiness that is persistent
Physical symptoms that are persistent and don’t respond to treatment, including
headaches, digestive disorders and chronic pain
A decrease in energy levels, fatigue or feeling bogged down
Either, sleeping too much or too little, early morning waking or difficulty falling to sleep
Uncontrollable feelings of guilt, helplessness, worthlessness, pessimism and hopelessness
Difficulty in concentrating or remained focused on tasks and responsibilities
Loss of interest of pleasure in activities once considered a passion
Suicidal ideation or suicidal attempts
One of the most common responses to clinical depression is psychopharmacological
intervention; however, I personally prefer to use drug intervention as an emergency or final
resort. The option I prefer to use is some form of psychotherapy that identifies core issues, while
providing coping mechanisms that will allow the individual to handle negative situations better.
Therapy can definitely be a viable and efficacious option, especially with less severe cases. I am
also currently working on a diet that will help raise serotonin and dopamine levels, which can be
very beneficial in treating depression.
What is important here is to understand that depression is real, and pretending that it does not
exist, or that those who openly suffer with it are weak or faithless, is not the way to successfully
confront this growing epidemic. We must treat it as we treat any other potentially life threatening
condition. We must be proactive in engaging it. We must educate our communities in order to
remove the stigma that is currently associated with this condition. Most of all, we cannot allow
our loved ones to suffer in silence.
Dr. Rick Wallace, Ph.D.
1. The Mis-education of Black Youth in America
2. Molestation, Incest and Rape in African American Families
3. Racial Trauma & African Americans
Joe, S. (2009). Black Teens, Especially Girls, at High Risk for Suicide Attempts. National
Institute of Mental Health.
Staff, E. (2016). Depression and African Americans. Mental Health America.
Staff, M. (2016). African American Mental Health. National Association on Mental Health.
Staff, P. (2014). Breaking the Taboo of Depression Among African American Men. Lucidia .
Storrs, C. (2015). Suicide Rates Among Young Black Boys on the Rise. CNN Health Journal.