Depressed black women must be strong to ask for help

Whenever I get “down in the dumps” or I’m “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” my drug of choice to smooth over those rough spots is sugar.My body craves it, and I give it all it wants. Makes me feel better. I think.

After talking with Kumea Shorter-Gooden, a clinical psychologist and author, I learned that some women, particularly black women, are emotional overeaters who try to mask their depression with food. “We often eat as a way of hiding our feelings,” Shorter-Gooden said by phone from California. “Other research shows that is particularly the case with black women.”

Occasional down periods aren’t worrisome. However, feelings that persist for longer periods of time should be diagnosed and treated. But we overeat, we overwork and we hide our feelings, all in lieu of asking for professional help.

Shorter-Gooden said African-American women generally do not seek treatment for their depression, either because our friends, religious community and family members don’t recognize depression as a legitimate health issue, or because acknowledging we have a mental illness is a sign of weakness. “It is beginning to change some,” she said. “I do see African-American women and some men in my practice, but the lion’s share do not come in. “We need to redefine strength. We need to be strong enough to ask for the help that we need.”

Nearly 66 percent of black, Hispanic and Asian women who thought they should seek the help of a mental health professional did not in the past year. That compares with 35 percent of white women who did not seek help. Shorter-Gooden will discuss depression in African-American women, its causes and treatment, as featured speaker Thursday of the Doris Wilkinson Distinguished Lecture at the University of Kentucky. Her talk, “The Making of Sisterella: How Racial & Gender Bias Impact Depression in Black Women,” will conclude the 12th annual Black Women’s Conference, sponsored by UK’s African American Studies and Research Program. This year’s theme is “Soul Well: Black Women and Mental Health.”

Extraordinary strength is one positive stereotype of black women, Shorter-Gooden said. But that same positive can become a negative if we believe we are letting others down or that we are weak in our religious faith if we acknowledge our illness. Plus, black women are continually bombarded by the Madison Avenue image of the perfect beauty, and it is not us. The image is one of a thin white woman with long blond hair.

Just shy of that, and still beyond the reach of most of us, are the acceptable black images embodied in the likes of Tyra Banks, Halle Berry and BeyoncŽ. “It sends a subtle message,” Shorter-Gooden said. Are we beautiful? Do we deserve to seek help? Maybe our belief in God isn’t strong enough. Add to that the pressures of relationships, motherhood, jobs, racism and sexism, and it seems miraculous we aren’t worse off.

Shorter-Gooden’s research is published in a book she co-authored with Charisse Jones, Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. She said she learned that some black women mask the signs of depression by becoming stoic overachievers. “I’ve never known a group that sleeps less than black women,” she said. Others are caretakers, doing whatever it takes to get the job done. That involvement “can hide depressed feelings,” Shorter-Gooden said.

And then there are those of us who choose to eat our troubles away. Binge eaters, she calls us. It’s time for us to take care of ourselves. If we feel tired or empty; if we’re sleeping too much or too little; if we are eating too much or too little; if we are joyless, restless, hopeless or filled with guilt, we need to seek professional help and get back on track. Think of what we are teaching our children. Force yourself to go hear Shorter-Gooden on Thursday. Then if what she says rings true, seek help. It’s time to do something for ourselves.

By Merlene Davis