To say “I’m depressed” is quite simple. You didn’t get the job you applied for, or you’re temporarily broke, or you’ve just had an argument with your partner. All these feelings of upset are usually summed up by the word ‘depressed.’ But what many people fail to realise is that depression is actually a disease of the mind. With true depression, the symptoms last continuously for at least two weeks, and affect the sufferer’s daily activities.
The World Health Organisation defines depression as “a common mental disorder that presents with depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration.” It can affect anyone at any time, yet we don’t really seem to hear about it within the black community, and especially among black males, since they are notoriously known for not speaking about their feelings for fear of appearing weak.
Don, 30, is a happily married father of one, who acknowledges that he suffered a form of depression during his teens, when everything in his life began to go wrong.
“It started when I was 14 years old. My parents separated while my mum was heavily pregnant with their fourth child, and I found it difficult to digest. In that same week I had been playing basketball after school with friends, and as I jumped to catch the ball, someone pushed me from behind. As I landed I heard a click in my back and I fell awkwardly. I was in constant pain after that, but I refused to go to the doctor, because even up till now I have never been a fan of them. The pain I suffered meant that sometimes I would have to call my mum to help me sit up in bed. I was dependent on her.
“When I turned 15, my parents were still separated, but my back pain wasn’t as severe – not because it was improving, but more to do with the fact that I found a way to live with it. At the time I thought my life couldn’t get any worse, but I was wrong. During another basketball game with friends one rainy day, I lost my step while running and fell over, which caused me to cut my fingers, but I just ignored it. Later that week the cut became infected, so I reluctantly went to the doctor who couldn’t understand why I was developing black bumps on my hands. He advised me to just leave it as he couldn’t do anything. I took it upon myself to use a needle and scissors to pick and cut at it, but it just grew back bigger, and I eventually counted 24 all over my hands. I tried to forget about it, which was difficult every time I washed my hands or tried to write or shook a hand. It also affected my confidence with girls, as I didn’t want them to get too close in case they spotted my sores.”
Don’s confidence sank to a low, but he attempted to seek solace in the one thing that came naturally to him – sport. In 1996, at the age of 16, he received a letter from Charlton Athletic FC, inviting him to try out for them after being scouted while playing for his school.
“I was over the moon. I felt there was light at the end of the tunnel. The football pitch was one place I could forget all my problems.”
The following day, while practising his skills in a match during his school lunch break, an opponent tackled Don awkwardly.
“Straight away I knew what had happened, because I heard a snap. My ankle had broken, and I could see the bone sticking out through my skin. I was taken to hospital where they operated, and then told me that I wouldn’t be able to rotate my ankle the way I could before. From that moment I felt my whole world come to an end… I wanted to die.”
For almost a year Don sank into depression, but kept his feelings hidden. “I hated my life, I didn’t go to school for months, I felt weak, and I wasn’t eating or sleeping. There were many times I would limp over to the River Thames with my crutches and contemplate ending my life by just leaping over, and one particular day I was actually convinced I would go through with it, but I chickened out at the last minute. My mother never knew how I felt, since I was able to pretend I was fine, but I’m sure she knew something was wrong. I felt that way for at least the nine months it took me to learn to walk without the crutches, but my chances of playing for Charlton were well and truly over.”
Although Don never sought professional help with the aid of anti-depressants or therapy, he credits his mum with introducing him to church and his Christian faith with helping him to come to terms with the events in his life.
Cynics have dismissed depression as mere laziness, believing that often some people just get into a lazy rut, then become used to doing nothing, labelling it ‘depressed’ to justify their laziness. Could this be true? After all our quality of life is better than it was for our parents and grandparents, who weren’t exposed to the luxuries we currently enjoy, rather having to physically graft harder to provide a life for their families. Or is it more the case that we set ourselves extremely, almost unattainable goals, and when they are not reached, our minds are unable to cope?
The reality is that depression is an illness that exists and can strike anyone. It is not a sign of weakness, but can rather be triggered by certain risk factors, including inherited genetics (having a parent or grandparent who was a sufferer), the death of a loved one, drug use, and more common factors such as stress.
If you feel you or someone you know is suffering from depression, the advice to follow is:
Don’t bottle your feelings up, talk to people about how you feel.
Try and keep as active as possible, as sitting and constantly thinking about your problems can make them seem worse.
Do not increase your alcohol intake by drowning your sorrows. It will only make the depression worse.
Remember that depression is an illness and not a case of simply ‘pulling yourself together.’ Talk to your GP. Depression is very common.
First published in Candy Mag UK, May 2010