“I got the blues so bad it hurts my tongue to talk” ~ Son House
The recent suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams has thrust mental health issues back into the national headlines. Unfortunately, we hear little about such issues until something tragic happens. The discussion of mental health issues in the Black community is even more muted.
The music tradition of the blues began in the cane breaks and cotton fields of the South where our ancestors expressed their pain and despair. Of course they buffeted those mournful songs with the hope of spirituals and their voices lifted to God. Blues migrated from the south along with Black people who were searching for a brighter future in the North. Chicago, Kansas City, and New York were sites of urban blues. We have sung sorrowful songs throughout our sojourn in these United States.
But having the blues also expresses a feeling of being “out of sorts” in our everyday living. We have talked about those “Monday morning blues” that signal our reluctance to go back to that job that makes us more than a little annoyed. However, we know that by Friday that particular blue feeling lifts as we plan for family, friends, and fun that the weekend portends. Many of us have felt the weight of the blues after the break-up of a relationship. Those blue feelings are sometimes alleviated by a night out (or more) with close friends where there is a rehashing of all the things that “low down dirty dog” did–real or imagined.
Some of us get that “blah” feeling when winter sets in and there is day after day of gray skies. We just want a little sunshine to lift our spirits.
But there is something much more than “the blues” that also plagues Black life…it is depression! It is a clinical condition that is more than just a day or two of feeling “out of sorts.” It is a dark seemingly inescapable place of hopelessness. We recognize it in certain situations. More recently we have heard people talk about “baby blues”–that period of time after delivery where a mother cannot seem to feel the joy and excitement that we associate with new parenthood. And of course, having been immersed in a long period of war we are seeing veterans return home with what is clinically known as PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder).
However, we know that one does not have to have any of these catalytic experiences to bring on a depressive episode. Depression has a biochemical connection. Somewhere in the brain powerful brain chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, etc.) are not functioning the way they should. Thus, telling someone with depression to “shake it off,” “pull themselves together,” or “pray” is no solution to the MEDICAL condition from which they are suffering. We would not tell that same person to “shake off” diabetes, cancer, or high blood pressure. We understand that they need MEDICAL help.
The silence surrounding mental health in the Black community is deafening. I argue that the majority of our young people who get caught up in the juvenile justice system are suffering from some undiagnosed mental health issue. In an effort to “feel better” they try to “self-medicate” using alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both. This involvement can lead to other illicit activity and progresses to imprisonment (and sometimes death).
As a community we need to admit that we do not understand most mental health disorders and we need to commit to educating ourselves about them so that we might help ourselves. Author and depressive Andrew Solomon writes in his book, “The Noonday Demon” that depression is that disease that even if the cure were sitting on your dresser, you would not have the motivation to get up and get it!”
We need to have some serious talk about mental health issues—it’s more than just the blues! Tell me what you think.
Stay Black & Smart!