What African Americans Need To Know About Mental Health

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How could it have been avoided?

That is the question that lingers nearly five months after NFL player Jovan Belcher (pictured left) shot and killed Kassandra Perkins (pictured right), his longtime girlfriend and Mother of his infant daughter (pictured).

The Kansas City Chiefs linebacker then left the home the couple shared and drove to Arrowhead Stadium, where he killed himself in front of coaches and the team’s general manager.

On its face, the horrific case of domestic violence appears to be a crime of passion, but beneath it runs an undercurrent of unchecked mental health issues for Belcher, who had been drinking heavily before the murder-suicide.

Truth is, no one can really say just how the tragedy unfolded and exactly how it could have been avoided. We do know that there had been signs of trouble and that the team provided the couple with counseling. Belcher’s mother, Cheryl Shepherd, had been living with them for about two weeks. Word was, Perkins was preparing to take their 3-month-old daughter, Zoey, and leave.

We also know that Belcher was suffering from depression, according to interviews with friends, teammates, and NFL officials. Early treatment for any number of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder, can help improve the quality of life for those who are suffering.

And since May is Mental Health Month, experts are using the moment to shine the spotlight on the burgeoning health issue. Black mental health experts urge African Americans to pay attention because the community has long been known to turn a blind eye to the illness.

“African-Americans are more at risk for diminished mental health more so than Whites because of challenges, such as poverty, which is a hardship that can cause depression and anxiety,” Dr. Jeff Gardere, a mental health expert and Wellness Director at Philip Stein, told NewsOne.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 10 adults report that they suffer from some form of depression, and Blacks, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic people of other races are most likely to report experiencing some form of the illness.

Depression can be costly and debilitating, the report shows. It can also adversely affect the course and outcome of common chronic conditions, such as arthritis, asthma, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity, the CDC says. Depression also can result in increased work absenteeism, short-term disability, and decreased productivity.

RELATED: 7 Surprising Habits That Cause Depression

The CDC says a person may be diagnosed with major depression if, for “more than half the days,” they reported meeting at least five of the eight criteria, including at least one of the following: 1) “little interest or pleasure in doing things”; 2) “feeling down, depressed, or hopeless”; 3) “trouble falling asleep or staying asleep or sleeping too much”; 4) “feeling tired or having little energy”; 5) “poor appetite or overeating”; 6) feeling bad about yourself or that you were a failure or let yourself or your family down”; 7) “trouble concentrating on things, such as reading the newspaper or watching television”; and 8) “moving or speaking so slowly that other people could have noticed…or the opposite: being so fidgety or restless that you were moving around a lot more than usual.”

Tackling mental health issues early on can be vital, according to advocates like Terrie Williams, a clinical social worker, anti-violence expert, founder of her own public relations firm, and author of “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting.”

After the Belcher incident, Williams told NewsOne:

“All emotional problems stem from childhood. Let me be clear, unless one gets help, these problems can be passed on to adulthood. But without treating the parties involved, I can’t say exactly what went on with them, but it’s all about mental health, proper treatment, and breaking the cycle of violence. I’ve heard and read the reports about a possible concussion, which would exacerbate any emotional problems that he may have had, but at this point, we have to wait for all of the information to come out. It’s all very disconcerting and sad. I feel for both of their families and their child.”

Dr. Jeff Gardere says there are many strategies and techniques people can use to help them manage stress before it manages them:

  • Acknowledge the negative role stress plays in your life. By identifying your stressors and even resultant health related symptoms, you no longer have to be a victim to “unseen” forces and can instead be empowered to actively address that stress and work towards mental wellness.
  • Learn better time management and organizational skills. You will soon find a better balance in all aspects of your life as well as being less rushed, overwhelmed, and then of course less stressed emotionally.
  • Maintain a strong network of supportive family and friends. Relationships, social interaction, and support are the emotional vitamins for a strong mind.
  • Maintain a lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, regular exercise, spirituality through prayer, mediation or yoga, and of course, a good nights sleep. Don’t forget that exercise releases endorphins, which makes you feel good.
  • Do things or expose yourself to situations that make you laugh. Laughter provides emotional healing and also releases endorphins that make you feel good.

“Maintaining and checking your mental health is vital,” Dr. Gardere said. “It’s like going to see your dentist. If you don’t have any real dental issues, you should still go in and get your teeth checked. We say the same thing about mental health. Some people may not know they are experiencing a problem and this month is important because it raises awareness about the importance of mental health treatment.”

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