Black Men Overcoming Stigma of Depression Are black men less likely to seek help for mental illness? Are they even willing to acknowledge that they may have a problem? Journalist and author John Head has seen this problem from the inside. His new book is titled Standing in the Shadows: Understanding and Overcoming Depression in Black Men.
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Black Men Overcoming Stigma of Depression

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Black Men Overcoming Stigma of Depression

Black Men Overcoming Stigma of Depression

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I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES. Today we give you the final installment of our March series on mental health. We've talked about how to identify symptoms of depression and mental illness, how to get help, and what to do if someone you love is a threat to him or herself.

We have gotten some incredible responses from you listening, and today we want to talk about gender in mental health. Are black men less likely to seek help for mental illness? Are they even willing to acknowledge they might have a problem?

Journalist and author John Head has seen this problem from the inside and out. For more than 20 years he worked as a health reporter at the Detroit Free Press and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, but his own personal experience has led him to write "Standing in the Shadows: Understanding and Overcoming Depression in Black Men." John, thanks for coming on.

Mr. JOHN HEAD (Author): Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So what made you write "Standing in the Shadows"?

Mr. HEAD: Well, it started with a fellowship at the Carter Center in Atlanta, in their mental health program, and it's a project where they allow journalists to spend a year doing a project connected with mental health, and I initially was going to do a project about access to mental health care in minority communities.

And someone at the Center told me that was quite a piece to bite off, so I should try to narrow the focus, and I started narrowing the focus and I got down to the point where I said to myself if you're going to do this and you're going to be honest about it, you need to narrow it down to the person you know most about, and that's you.

Because at that point I had struggled with depression, and in fact I'd gotten treatment for depression, but I had never really told anyone about it. So I wound up doing the book as the project and writing mostly about my own experiences, but also talking with experts and looking at the field and trying to figure out whether there is a relationship between mental health and race and particularly with regard to black men.

CHIDEYA: So you've laid out a lot of issues, but just very briefly, what was the pivotal experience that brought you to write about your own journey, as well as the bigger picture?

Mr. HEAD: I guess the thing that really allowed me to get to that point was getting help, and I got help only when I reached the point where I was near suicide, where I thought that the only way to end the pain that I was going through would be to take my life.

In fact, I went through what I considered to be a dress rehearsal for suicide and taking basically all the steps I needed to take to take my own life, but then reaching that point where I either did it or stepped back, and for some reason I stepped back, and I think I stepped back because I had it in my mind, thinking about my three sons, and whether I wanted to leave them in that way and leave them with the question of why I had done it, and also even maybe thinking that they may have been the cause of me doing it. I didn't want that to happen.

So that's when I stepped back from that, and that's when I knew that I was in real trouble and that I needed to get help, and I have to say that I had suffered from untreated depression for 20 years at that point.

CHIDEYA: So what - what kind of help did you get. I mean, when you decided in, you know, obviously in an amazing, powerful way to affirm your life, what did you seek out?

Mr. HEAD: Well, I sought professional help, which is something that I had resisted for years. My wife had tried to talk me into getting help, and so only when I reached that point where I knew that I just had nowhere else to turn, I got professional help, and I went about it in all the wrong way.

I just sort of got a list of names of doctors, psychiatrists, mental health providers in my area, and just chose the one who was closest to me and didn't do any research, didn't do any interview. I just picked that name because she was close.

And I got very lucky, though. I got to someone who was very good, very empathetic and who really started me on the journey to recovery and really a second chance at life.

CHIDEYA: Now that you're an author and in some ways an advocate, how do you craft a message to black men in particular that says it's okay to get help, in fact it's better than okay, it's necessary?

Mr. HEAD: Well, I mean one thing that I try to do is - I mean I'm very interested in the intersection of mental health and race, and it's interesting that you were talking earlier about Dr. King because one of my favorite sayings on that issue comes from Dr. King.

And Dr. King said that racism is meant to instill in black people a degenerating sense of nobody-ness. And that degenerating sense of nobody-ness to me is a classic definition of depression, and so we have these forces at play in our lives that are meant to make us feel bad about ourselves, that are meant to make us think badly about ourselves. And I try to get that message across to black people, especially to black men.

I think we are particularly the target, and it is devastating when we fall prey to it, and I will give you an example of falling prey to, is that when I was in the depths of my worst depression, there was nothing good about me that I was willing to admit.

I thought that everything you could say bad about a black man was true about me, and when you are in that place, when you are willing to accept those negative stereotypes and unwilling to accept anything good about you, you are in a very bad place, especially for a black person, especially for a black man. Because that's the thing you really need to fight against every day, and if you are in a frame of mind where you accept that, you are lost to yourself, lost to your family, and lost to your community.

So I try to get people to look at that and to look at getting beyond that and arming yourself to fight that battle every day. You can't do that if you aren't in that place where you are mentally healthy, emotionally healthy, and can see the world in a way that allows you to be positive about yourself.

CHIDEYA: So it sounds like therapy is one part of it and possibly medication if you need it, but what are - just name one other element of what might take you from a place of pain and self-destruction to a place where you're emotionally and mentally healthy again.

Mr. HEAD: Well, there are many things. I mean, having, you know, the social network around you, support that people can provide to you, family and friends, but there are also things that you can do. You mentioned therapy, you mentioned medication, and these can be important. But just living a healthy lifestyle, getting exercise, eating properly.

If you feel good physically, you are, you know, one step towards that mental well-being, emotional well-being, and you really have to have that. I think you really have to look at it as, you know, the whole person and not just focus on one aspect.

But that, you know, that social network works only if you're willing to call on it, only if you're willing to talk about your problems to someone, and to me that is always the first step. If you can talk to someone you trust, and that may be a family member, it may your wife, it may be your minister, but to just start talking about what you're going through and to understand that you are not alone, that you don't have to be ashamed. Especially for men - and this is something that we find particularly difficult, just to talk about how we're feeling emotionally and to admit that we're not always strong. That step has to be taken before you're really on that path to recovery.

CHIDEYA: Well, John, thank you for sharing your story with us.

Mr. HEAD: Thank you. Thank you for paying attention to this very important subject.

CHIDEYA: John Head is the author of "Standing in the Shadows: Understanding and Overcoming Depression in Black Men," and he joined us from the studios on U.C. Berkeley's School of Journalism.

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