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Depression and Suicide in African Americans: Symptoms and Getting Help

From adults to kids, these problems impact the Black community—but are often silenced. Here's what to watch for, and how you can help someone in trouble.

When a 7-year-old boy from Detroit hung himself, it was more than just shock and a tragedy. It was a wake-up call.

Although recognizing depression and suicidal thoughts isn't always easy, there are things you can look for—in adults and kids—and action you can take if there is concern.

The statistics

Suicide isn't necessarily on the forefront when we think of preventable deaths, but it was the 10th leading cause of death for the U.S. in 2007, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, with a rate of 11.3 suicide deaths for every 100,000 people. But there were an estimated 11 suicide attempts for every suicide death that occurred.

And, as seen from the horrible story about the boy from Detroit, suicide can even affect children. In 2007, it was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24. Out of every 100,000 youth, there are 0.9 deaths for ages 10-14, 6.9 deaths for ages 15-19, and 12.7 for ages 20-24.

Battling a stigma

Henry Ford Health System psychologist Dr. Carnigee Truesdale says African-Americans, specifically, see suicide and depression as stigmas, where mental illness is often viewed as a weakness. She says there's a mentality that African-Americans have where they should be able to handle and manage everything without an immense amount of struggle.

"My best guess is just that it's culture. I think most people of color, they're races that have a history of struggle, prejudice and racism," Truesdale explains. "We've had to deal and overcome so much that I think it's ingrained that in order to make it in society, you have to always do your best."

A recent study from Georgia State University found that suicide was rarely, if ever, discussed within the African-American community. Some participants even stated that they weren't aware suicide and depression were major issues until that study. But one African-American dies by suicide every 4 1/2 hours, and suicide attempts of African-American males exceed both Caucasian males and females in the United States.

Signs of trouble

The little boy who committed suicide had been very depressed because of being bullied by other children and his parents' recent separation. Many signs and symptoms of depression are similar for children and adults, Truesdale says. Some of these include:

  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • Changes in mood (feeling more irritable and constantly sad)
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • Physical symptoms (more so in the adult population; i.e., headaches or chronic pain)
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-injuring behavior, such as cutting (typically seen in teens and adolescents).

In teens and adolescents, though, some of these behaviors might just be instances of hormonal changes or "acting out." Truesdale says it's always good to check for depression or other mental illnesses just to be sure.

Risk factors

According to the Oakland County Mental Health Authority, one in four families are affected by mental illness, which is a biologically based health condition. A key component of mental illness is recognizing the difference between the normal sadness and daily stress that people experience, vs. the prolonged struggle with overwhelming and consistent dejection, Truesdale says.

Depression and other mental illnesses are one of the main risk factors for suicide in both children and adults, according to the NIMH, which also lists these as other common risk factors for suicide:

  • Prior suicide attempt
  • Family history of mental disorder or substance abuse
  • Family history of suicide
  • Firearms in the home
  • Incarceration
  • Family violence, including physical and sexual abuse
  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, such as family, peers or media figure

Getting help

If you feel that you or someone you know is at risk for depression or suicide, Truesdale says that you should contact a mental health professional (social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc.) as soon as possible. If you aren't sure where to find a mental health professional, she recommends going to your primary care physician to get pointed in the right direction.

If you are in crisis and need help right away, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—a toll-free number available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Wayne County Intervention, Suicide Prevention Information Referral Helpline also is accessible by calling 313-224-7000 or 800-241-4949.

Other local resources include Common Ground in Pontiac (800-231-1127), NSO Suicide Prevent Center in Detroit (800-270-7117), Operation Get Down in Detroit (313-921-9422) and Perfect Depression Care Center via the Henry Ford Health System (800-436-7936).

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