When Victor Henderson, 61, noticed that his constant feelings of sadness were all too consuming, he knew something was very wrong.  “I felt sad about everything. Nothing in life was enjoyable anymore. I was sapped of energy, excitement, joy, satisfaction; you name it. I could not motivate myself to do anything! I tried time and time again to snap myself out of my chronic funk but just couldn’t do it. Thankfully, my best friend found a psychologist for me, then literally dragged me to her office; I am so, so very thankful!”

Victor is just one of 15 million Americans battling depression. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population and this includes depression. When it comes to aging, 56 percent of African Americans believe that depression is just a consequence of getting old. The truth is that the condition is not a normal part of life for anyone, regardless of age or life situation. Depression in older folks is often unrecognized and thereby untreated because many physicians tend to lump the symptoms with such illnesses as cancer, heart attack or stroke. Older Black men also suffer from depression more than their white counterparts.

When it comes to seeking help for depression, there is a stigma attached of shame for many African Americans. According to research, common coping strategies for depression among Blacks is to rely on religious, family and community support rather than seek medical treatment. Spiritual support can be an important part of healing, but the care of a qualified mental health professional is crucial. And the earlier treatment begins, the more effective it can be.

Symptoms of depression

In order to be diagnosed with depression, you need to have at least five of the following symptoms for at least a two week period.  Clinicians also take into consideration the severity of the symptoms as well. A mental health professional should always be consulted in order to make an accurate diagnosis:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness, or having trouble sitting still
  • Loss of interest in once pleasurable activities, including sex
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Eating more or less than usual, usually with unplanned weight gain or loss
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without an apparent physical cause and/or that do not ease with treatment
  • Frequent crying

Seek treatment for depression

Even the most severest bouts of depression can be treated.  If you suspect you might have depression, you can start with your primary care physician who can refer you to a mental health care specialist. A medical provider (psychologist or psychiatrist) can diagnose your condition and rule out other illnesses that can mimic depression.

You may have to undergo a physical, psychological eval and have lab work performed so that your physician can give you a diagnosis.  Depression is usually treated with psychotherapy (talk therapy) and medications like antidepressants which can take a bit of time before they actually kick in.

Antidepressants are safe for the most part, but those taking them should be closely monitored especially during the early part of treatment.  Older adults who are taking various prescriptions should make sure to consult with their doctor about any new side effects.

It is also best to discuss with a doctor, the use of any herbal preparation like St. John’s wort to try and combat depression. Herbal preparations are not consistently effective for the condition and should never be used to replace conventional care or to postpone seeing a health care provider.  Word to the wise, the combination of certain herbal treatments and antidepressants can lead to a health-related and life-threatening situation.

Can depression be prevented?

There are a few things you can do to better cope with life situations.

  • Try to minimize your workload and only take on what you feel you can handle.
  • Exercise is a tried and true antidepressant; go the meditative route with routines like yoga or tai chi.
  • Make your physical health a priority, keep your doctor appointments, get enough zzz’s and take your meds as prescribed. Depression has been associated with a greater risk of heart disease and diabetes.  FYI, a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in veggies, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and fish, is linked to a lower risk of developing depression.
  • Steer clear of alcohol and recreational drugs which can negatively alter moods.
  • Consider joining a support group so that you can perhaps learn coping skills that have worked for others and get the social support that you might be seeking.
  • Reach out to loved ones when stress seems out of control.

Keep in mind that with the proper treatment, you will get better. Depression is a condition that takes time to treat but many have been able to find their happy place again.  Silence and stoicism – denying yourself help in order to appear strong – need to be overcome.

Need more information about depression?

American Psychological Association
1-800-374-2721 (toll-free)
1-202-336-6123 (TDD/TTY)
www.apa.org

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance 
1-800-826-3632 (toll-free)
www.dbsalliance.org

National Alliance on Mental Illness
1-800-950-6264 (toll-free)
www.nami.org

Mental Health America
1-800-969-6642 (toll-free)
www.mentalhealthamerica.net

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-8255 (toll-free/24 hours a day)
1-800-799-4889 (TTY/toll-free)
www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org