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Panel on Depression Wraps BIG Black History Month Observances

By Robin Arnette
April 2007

Alfiee Breland-Noble
Moderator Alfiee Breland-Noble discussed her AAKOMA Project. (Photo Courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Wei Jang
Wei Jang made several important points about depression as a risk factor for cardiac disease. (Photo Courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Elwood Robinson
Elwood Robinson presented data on the impact of depression on African-American women. (Photo Courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Nayo Watkins
Nayo Watkins recounted her experience dealing with the loss of her son to suicide. (Photo Courtesy of Steve McCaw)

In conjunction with the NIEHS Office of Clinical Research, the Research Triangle Park Chapter of Blacks in Government (BIG) presented "Addressing the Silent Crisis of Depression," a panel discussion that provided information on the impact of depression on the African-American community. The event took place in Rodbell Auditorium on February 27 and was the last of RTP BIG's Black History Month observances.

Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D., director of Education and Biomedical Research Development at NIEHS, gave the welcoming address and focused on the importance of observing Black History Month. She also challenged the audience not to forget the many nameless African-Americans, both slaves and descendents of slaves, who fought and died for their freedom. Their efforts led to the enactment of laws that now protect not only the civil rights of African-Americans, but also the civil rights of all who had previously been marginalized.

The four panelists represented institutions or organizations from the Triangle area, and each gave a ten-minute presentation that dealt with a specific subtopic of depression. Panel moderator Alfiee Breland-Noble, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Duke University Medical Center (DUMC), began with a brief overview of the illness. Clinical depression is defined as a state of intense sadness, melancholia or despair that has advanced to the point of being disruptive to an individual's social functioning or activities of daily living. Breland-Noble continued, "There are three major types of clinical depression: major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder-formerly known as manic depression-and dysthymia, which is a general persistent malaise."

Breland-Noble went on to say that the mental health community needs more research on African-Americans and depression because there are very little data. However, Breland-Noble said there is an uneasiness in the African-American community about volunteering for such studies because of lingering mistrust of the medical community after the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.( Exit NIEHS Her current project may help change this way of thinking while helping African-Americans get the treatment they need. Her African-American Knowledge Optimized for Mental-Health Awareness (AAKOMA) Project intends to 1) identify factors associated with participation in research and treatment and 2) develop an intervention to increase participation in research and treatment.

Wei Jiang, M.D., associate professor of Medicine and associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at DUMC, talked about the importance of understanding the impact of depression on cardiac diseases. Currently, clinical depression is the leading cause of disability in North America and in other countries, but Jiang stressed the role the two diseases will play in the future. "By 2020, the top two causes of disability worldwide will be cardiac disease and depression," she said.

Elwood Robinson, Ph.D., professor of Psychology and interim dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at North Carolina Central University, presented data dealing with African-American women and depression. "African-American women, compared to African-American men and Caucasian men and women, were least likely to commit suicide, although they are probably just as depressed as everyone else," he asserted. Robinson petitioned the audience to theorize why this is the case. Many in the audience smiled and offered several responses, all with a common theme: African-American women have too many things to do. They don't have time to kill themselves.

Although this retort was offered as a humorous interpretation of the data, Robinson brought up another study during the question and answer session that appeared to back up this idea. "Similar studies with single African-American fathers suggest that they also have a low rate of suicide," he declared. "Just like African-American women, they are responsible for so many people that they have to stay strong and keep the family together."

Nayo Watkins, founder and director of The Mekye Center, a Durham-based program for children who are "different learners" and their parents, provided a first-hand account of the pain and loss that depression can cause. Her 16-year old son, Mekye, committed suicide in 1998, and since then, she has dedicated her life to helping people recognize the symptoms of depression and encouraging them to seek treatment. "African-Americans have the attitude that we [as a people] don't commit suicide," Watkins stated, "and that depression is a sign of weakness. It isn't." She encouraged audience members to look for signs of depression in their loved ones - disturbed sleep patterns, fatigue, loss of appetite, irritability and trouble concentrating, to name a few.

All of the panelists reiterated that depression is a disease of the brain and that there is no shame in seeking help. Family doctors, mental health specialists and other health professionals may provide a variety of treatments, including medications and short-term psychotherapies. More than 80 percent of people who receive treatment improve.

For more information about depression and other mental health issues, please see the National Institute of Mental Health( Exit NIEHS Web site.

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