There are a number of challenges facing African American communities today, but according to Virgil Gooding, Sr., MSW, LISW, executive director and therapist at Keys to Awareness & Associates (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), most of them center around mental health.
“Depression is endemic in the African Americans community,” said Gooding, who gave a presentation at the 2011 National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD) titled “Depression, Self Medication, and Cocaine: Unraveling an African American Dilemma.”
“Because there is such little access to the mental health services,” he added, “it’s a population whose needs are not even close to being met.”
Gooding focused on a phenomenon called dysthymia, or dysthemic disorder, which he explained as a “low-level form” of depression that is prevalent in African American communities. While people with the disorder can work and function socially, they simply never feel happy.
In many cases, Gooding said the condition often leads to “self medication” and situations can deteriorate rapidly as a result.
“In an effort to feel better, they turn to drugs,” explained Gooding. “Cocaine, methamphetamine, they offer a short-term high that makes them feel powerful and in control, letting them push away that depressed, unhappy feeling.”
Consequently, there is also a “disproportionate” number of African Americans incarcerated on drug-related charges, Gooding said. “But if we trace it back, it came from this involvement with substances that were directly trying to get this person past their dysthymia."
Audience members were urged to consider strategies to decrease the effect and instances of dysthymia in the African American population, including “culturally specific” approaches to substance abuse intervention. And one critical aspect, Gooding noted, was being able to put the problem in a historical context.
“African Americans even created the blues to describe what it was like to feel this way,” he explained. “But the blues is really just depression. Most folks have no idea that those things are connected, but they are.”