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A major cause of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety
in individuals is stress. Defined stress is an internal response caused by the
application of a stressor or anything that requires coping behaviour. For
example the pressure of a job, supporting a family or getting an education are
stressors that can result in depression and anxiety. Individuals and groups that
have numerous resources or other coping mechanisms are better suited for coping
with stress than are those who lack such resources. As a result, social and
economic circumstances in North America suggest that the black and Latino
communities have a higher risk for developing mental disorders than does the
non-black make up of the United States. Hence this paper will attempt to
demonstrate how due to socio-economic differences such as money, racism and
increased exposure to violence, blacks have a greater chance to develop mental
disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Some definitions: Stress, Depression & Anxiety
Stress is everywhere in our lives and it can be found in two forms. The
life of Afro-Americans is filled with both eustress and distress, but it is the
high rate of distress due to socio-economic circumstances that are responsible
for higher rates of depression and anxiety amongst them.
Depression is an emotional state characterized by extreme sadness,
gloomy ruminations, feelings of worthlessness, loss of hope, and often
apprehension, while anxiety is a generalized feeling of fear and apprehension.
The number of reported cases combining both depression and anxiety with Afro-
Americans has dramatically increased since the civil rights movement, when
scientists began recording such causal relationships. In addition, statistics
show that the rate of violence demonstrates a positive relationship of mental
health disorders within the black community. Studies by Bell, Dixie-Bell and
Thompson show that Afro-Americans have a 36% higher chance of developing
depression than do non-blacks (Bell, Dixie-Bell, & Thompson, p.53). It is felt
that a portion of these results can be attributed to the high incidence of
violence and exposure within the black community.
Poverty and unemployment are rampant in Afro-American communities in the
United States. Approximately 65% of the black community in the U.S. live in
poverty or are unemployed (Bell et al., p.53). In comparison to other ethnic
groups, this is the highest rate with the exception of the Latino community at
68.7%. The closest group above the blacks are the Chinese at 35%. Not only are
most blacks poor and unemployed but, the future does not look promising in terms
of job opportunities for Afro-Americans. This rampant spread of poverty within
the black community causes great distress within the family unit.
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unable to provide for their children basic necessities for living, such as food
or proper shelter. In effect this distress causes individuals to demonstrate
extreme sadness, feelings of worthiness and loss of hope. Their great anxiety is
because there is, "no apparent way out of the situation."(Friedman, p.77)
Despite the feeling that some substantial progress in terms of race
relations has been made since the civil rights movement of the 1960's, "afro-
americans still feel that they are at the bottom of the race poll." (Fenton,
p.13) Much racism and prejudice still exists in America today and with
occurrence of certain events, racial tensions are definitely increasing. For
example both the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson trials, ignited intense debate
amongst the population about racial issues. Despite the conviction of Rodney
Kings attackers and the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, blacks feel as though justice
was not served. "White America is still appalled at the destruction the King
verdict caused."(Harton, p.89) The reaction to the results of these two cases
was caused by distress within the black community. In addition, it is this
distress that will cause blacks to suffer from high rates of anxiety.
Studies show that Afro-Americans demonstrate higher levels of fear and
apprehension. When asked what their anxiety was caused by, Afro-American teens
said that their fear comes from fear of dying before their 21 birthday and fear
of losing a loved one to drugs or gang violence. When presented with the same
question, white teens responded their greatest fears were not getting into grad
school and not being considered popular at school. Thus it is evident, that the
concerns of black teens are more about, "actual survival than they are about
their image or position in life".(Friedman, p.63) However, it is important to
realize that this does not mean that white teens can't develop high levels of
anxiety, just that the fear for ones life may be considered more alarming than
ones public image.
Studies by Bell and Jenkins (1991) found that, Afro-American teens
living in the inner-city have high levels of exposure to violence and this
exposure causes them to demonstrate high levels of stress and anxiety. The
results found that by the age of 16, black teens had them selves been or knew
somebody that had been shot, shot at, killed, beaten, robbed with a weapon,
stabbed or raped.(Friedman, p.87) Of 13 girls who had been interviewed for this
study, 11 had been raped. 83% of the teen had witnessed severe violence in the
community. Conversely, the same study done in a suburban area found that only
21% of teen had actually witnessed extreme violence or known somebody to have
been a victim. However, it is important to note that in the suburban case, of
the students that had or new someone involved, "16% were afro-
american".(Friedman, p.89) Evidently, blacks living in the States have a much
higher exposure to violence than do non-blacks. This in turn leads to higher
levels of anxiety blacks than in whites.
In addition to examining the relationship between socio-economic
circumstances and violence exposure, researchers wanted to see if their were any
other factors that contributed to higher rates of depression and anxiety in
blacks. An examination found that higher levels of distress were correlated with
alcohol and illicit drug use. Also, results showed a positive relationship for
poor academic performance in school with exposure to violence and low socio-
economic status (under poverty line). Again black youths demonstrated higher
levels than in white youths for incarceration and pregnancy which were also
listed as major stressors for black youths. Furthermore, black teens reported
they did not feel safe at home, in their neighbourhood or at school. Therefore
it is clear that blacks demonstrate a higher risk for developing a mental health
disorder such as depression and or anxiety than do white youths.
What should we do?
There is a great deal of information and research on the topic of
depression and anxiety in psychology. Much work has also been devoted to the
causes and treatments of these two behaviours. Unfortunately, however not much
work has been devoted to mental health from the Afro-American perspective. In
order to reduce and control the rate of depression and anxiety within the Afro-
American community much more research must be done in this field. Particularly
this research must include Canadian samples because the effect that violence
exposure and socio-economic stressors have on black Canadian is bound to differ
than that of Afro-Americans slightly. In addition, research shows that blacks
require different treatments than whites and that black patients react
differently to the same drugs given to white patients.
The experience of the Afro-American patient is different than that of
the white patient. Not only does the black patient have to deal with stereotypes
as a patient but the causes of his disorders also differ than that of a white
patient. Because of this, it is important that the health profession beware that
Afro- American patients require a different kind of treatment than white
patients. Furthermore, in depth research into this epidemic may provide blacks
with new coping strategies thus reducing the amount of stressors in their live.
Eventually this type of thinking and behaviour will lead to a healthier
lifestyle that includes more eutress than distress.
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