What Every Woman Should Know about Mental Health Ailments

Article excerpt

FINDING lately that you are too blue to get out of bed, let alone get dressed and go to work?

How about food? Eating more or less? What about sleep--too much or too little? Does the slightest provocation trigger tsunami-like mood swings? And do the unflinching demands of daily life, such as showering, cooking and cleaning, seem like insurmountable tasks? Have any of these symptoms persisted for weeks on end?

If you've answered yes to any combination of the above questions, you may be experiencing some form of depression and should seek professional help, mental health experts say.

You are not alone, especially if you are an African-American woman. Clinical depression is a serious medical illness that has a 15 percent chance of affecting a person during his or her lifetime. That figure is perhaps as high as 25 percent for women, according to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the reference guide for mental health professionals.

Higher rates of clinical depression among women may be linked to stress from work, family responsibilities, the roles and expectations of women and increased rates of sexual abuse and poverty, researchers say. Other factors such as diet, hormones, genetics and other biological differences (premenstrual syndrome, childbirth, infertility and menopause) also are thought to play a role in depressive illnesses.

But despite the huge toll mental disorders exact on the lives of its sufferers, only a small percentage of Black women who suffer from depression and other ailments receive any treatment.

Shame, embarrassment, fear of being labeled "crazy," the disparity in health care, and lack of insurance coverage are just a few of the reasons many African-American women do not seek professional help for mental health issues. But failure to seek treatment for any form of mental illness can result in a recurrence of the disease--yes, it is a disease--and a litany of other troubles, including hospitalization, substance abuse, economic woes, isolation, and ultimately suicide.

"True, there was a time--happily, a time past--when mental illness was used as an excuse to shackle those of us who listened to a different drummer," writes Marilyn Martin, M.D., M.P.H., in Saving Our Last Nerves: The Black Woman's Path to Mental Health. "The result was that many Black women are afraid of the mental health care industry, and buckling under pressures we could have handled if we'd had a little help ..."

In some cases, women do not realize that they are experiencing symptoms of mental illness. Some visit the doctor, complaining of headaches, back pain and other ailments. Others go to church, thinking that their spirituality needs rebuilding. Indeed, church can help, but mental health experts say that church and spirituality are not a cure-all. Mental health experts such as James E. Savage Jr., Ph.D., president of the Association of Black Psychologists, are working hard to educate African-Americans about the importance of seeking help.

"We are trying to debunk the myths and remove the stigma surrounding mental health that prevents us from receiving good mental health services," says Dr. Savage, president of the Institute for Life Enrichment, an outpatient mental health clinic with several offices in the Washington, D.C.-area. "We need to inform the community that they have rights to certain [mental health] treatments."

Besides depression, other forms of mental illness include psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, which is diagnosed when a person has two or more of these symptoms for more than a month: delusions, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and disorganized speech. …