Discussions about mental health in the Black community shouldn’t be limited to Black History Month in February and BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month in July. The conversations and action steps geared toward providing education, support, and resources require a year-round effort.

A recent article published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, shares that although Black people have made great contributions and achievements in the United States, “they continue to face many health disparities that adversely impact their overall health and well-being,” which have been “exacerbated by impacts of the COVID-pandemic, ongoing racism and discrimination, and police violence against and killings of Black people.”

What impact do these factors have on the mental health of individuals in the BIPOC community? Magellan’s medical director Rakel Beall-Wilkins, M.D., MPH shares her perspectives on depression and suggestions on ways to be supportive.

What is depression and what are some signs or symptoms?

Dr. Beall-Wilkins: Depression is a clinical illness characterized by:

  • Prolonged periods of low or sad mood.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities.
  • Changes in appetite, sleep or energy levels.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

Depression can be caused by medical illness, substance abuse, and stressful social, academic, or occupational situations, but it can also develop more readily in individuals who have a family history of depression or other mental health conditions.

Other signs of depression may include:

  • Withdrawing from social activities, relationships, or hobbies.
  • Escalating drug or alcohol use.
  • Declining self-care in the form of poor personal hygiene and grooming.
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and/or helplessness.
  • Neglecting to attend to chronic medical conditions or maintain follow-up with healthcare providers.

How does depression impact individuals in the Black community?

Dr. Beall-Wilkins: As of 2020, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 6% of Black American adults and 12.9% of Black American adolescents experienced a major depressive episode within the last year. Despite increasing levels of depression within the Black community, studies also show that Black Americans are less likely than their White counterparts to receive psychotherapy or medications for their depressive symptoms. This disparity is largely attributed to limited access to healthcare coverage and culturally competent behavioral health providers, as well as pervasive cultural stigma.

Is it possible for someone to experience depression that is triggered by external factors and societal issues, such as violence, police brutality, political unrest, and racism? If so, how?

Dr. Beall-Wilkins: Yes, it is possible for depression to develop as a result of exposure to sociopolitical strife. In fact, during the week following the highly publicized death of George Floyd in May 2020, rates of depression and anxiety spiked from 36 to 41% among Black American respondents to the Census Bureau’s 2020 Household Pulse Survey.

Likewise, a 2018 study published in The Lancet found that police killings of unarmed Black Americans resulted in an increase in poor mental health days among Black American respondents. Though they may not know the victims of these circumstances personally, it is very common for Black Americans to collectively internalize the trauma of these events and feel despair over the possibility that a similar fate could befall them or their close family members and friends. Moreover, the repeated nature of these events can elicit sadness, hopelessness, and fear that things will never change.

What are tips for an individual that recognizes they are showing signs of depression?

Dr. Beall-Wilkins:

  • Visit your doctor and seek treatment: Regularly follow up with a primary care provider to ensure there are no untreated or undertreated medical conditions that may contribute to the development or worsening of depressive symptoms.
  • Stay connected: Stay connected to close friends, family, and spiritual community for support.
  • Diet and exercise play a role: Eat a balanced diet and engage in physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day, three times per week.