Ask Dr. Bukky: Breaking the Silence Around Depression and Black Queer Women
“Ask Dr. Bukky” is ELIXHER’s new bi-weekly column that offers advice to queer women of color on relationships and mental health wellness. Got a question you want Dr. Bukky to tackle in the column? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Depression is no respecter of persons—it does not care if you are a graduate degree-holding, social justice-minded, community-organizing, liberal, anti-racist, gender non-conforming do-gooder or a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap, conservative, individualistic, God-fearing, wealth-amassing woman (or any combination thereof). It does not care how educated you are, how much you bring home each year, or what social class you fall into and it sure does not care whether or not you are person of color. The only things it cares about are whether it will be nurtured in silence and isolation—that dark hole filled with a deafening silence and a palpable heaviness—and how much it can take from you, including your breath of life. As if that is not bad enough, depression has the audacity to make you feel guilty about its presence and impact. You see, just like a “playette” who simply bags women to show them as notches on her belt, depression collects the names of people it cripples and keeps it moving till its next victim. Depression’s power is in the numbers it has caught in its grasp—its pride is in the lives it has destroyed.
So why are queer women of color falling prey to depression and doing exactly what it whispers in our ear, i.e., nurturing it in silence? For one, some of us have actually bought the myth that depression doesn’t exist and that it is the fancy name for “laziness.” Others think someone who has depression is someone who is weak or unwilling to change his or her situation. So when depression shows up, we think we can will it away or tell our friends and family suffering from it to “just get over it.” Considering the context of women of color historically priding themselves in being hard working, being able to persevere in the face of struggles, and protecting our people the best way we know how, we can begin to understand how much the word “depression” resembles the “Scarlett letter” in our minds. When we believe that naming our associations with depression might stigmatize us and pose threats to our family and community’s reputation, we do what makes sense—we avoid naming it to minimize the likelihood of bringing “shame” to our family and community. Instead, we pay the cost of suffering quietly and in isolation.
While such a plight might sound honorable, it also begets the question of how effective we are being in protecting our community given the dire consequences we suffer when depression is untreated: broken relationships, social withdrawal, school dropout, loss of job, unresponsive parenting, and, ultimately, suicide. You see, suicide is depression at its worst. Thoughts of suicide come with the loss of hope that things can or will get better. Suicide appears to become the only viable relief in the state of intense pain and absolute hopelessness. Suicide affects too many of us, more than we may allow ourselves to admit. In 2004, it was ranked as the third leading cause of death for African Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 (Source). According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), between the years 2008 and 2009, 183,000 non-Hispanic black men and women and 144,000 Hispanic adults attempted suicide.
Essentially, when we fail to name depression for what it is and how it affects us and others in our communities, we cultivate a culture of secrecy that inherently perpetuates depression. By not telling our stories and speaking up, we passively participate in constructing inaccurate narratives that leave our youth particularly vulnerable to being disempowered and blaming themselves when depression visits. Rather than seeing depression for the energy-zapping, sleep- and appetite-changing, thought-distorting, guilt-eliciting, catastrophe-creating, hope-thieving murderer that it is, we (and our youth) end up buying many of depression’s lies (see details of symptoms of depression).
The worst part of maintaining secrecy is how much depression deprives you of access to many truths about yourself and your experience, and even about depression itself. While depression is inducing guilt and shame in you, it conveniently forgets to tell you that there is a context for your experience and that there are effective treatments for getting rid of it. Instead, depression fills your mind with lies about how worthless and weak you are and how you deserve to be punished and miserable for the rest of your life.
Depression is conceived of biological and/or environmental causes. Most people’s experiences of depression are, in fact, triggered by either a major life event or a series of minor negative events. How could that not be the case for queer women of color as well, given the general drama of life and the triple minority status we bear? Regardless of its origin, depression can be effectively addressed. While some books (see David Burns’ Feeling Good) serve as a great self-help tool, they are usually inadequate for more intense forms of depression. What can be quite helpful are some specific approaches of talk therapy… and I don’t necessarily mean the types shown in the media e.g., the Dr. Phil, “shake you straight” confrontational type or the type where you’re laying on some couch talking about your childhood and your therapist is for the most part silent (aka traditional psychoanalysis).
Side note: did I really just mention the T word (therapy), as if it’s something normal people do? Yes, I did, because I know for a fact that therapy is something very normal people. While therapy bears the stigma of what “crazy” or “weak” people do, the reality is that it takes an incredible amount of sanity and strength to look at yourself and address the emotional or behavioral patterns that interfere with your ability to live, love, work and play the way that you need and deserve. The alternative of allowing your behaviors and, frankly, your life to be driven by processes operating outside of your conscious awareness, such as intense emotions or maladaptive beliefs about yourselves and others, is too costly for your productivity, relationships and life satisfaction. Even more, such an alternative seems just as played out as sexism and homophobia. I can proudly say that many of my clients are some of the most courageous people I know.
While we are on the topic, I want to also take the opportunity to clarify that therapy is not “paying for a best friend” unless you have a best friend who has an advanced degree in the study of human behavior and emotions, understands the way to apply specific interventions to relieve symptoms of emotional disorders or correct maladaptive patterns of thinking, and applies those skills to you. Gone are the days that people thought talk therapy was equivalent to just having a “buddy.” Gold standard research now offers support that shows that specific forms of psychotherapy are effective treatment approaches.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one such form of talk therapy with an extensive amount of research showing it to be quite effective for dealing with depression. In fact, it is demonstrated to be as effective as medication in the short term and has more lasting effects than medication upon termination. CBT is a structured, skills-based approach that focuses on your current day difficulties (versus your childhood) and offers concrete strategies for reclaiming your life from depression and other emotional disorders. Some other forms of talk therapy have also demonstrated efficacy in resolving depression, include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Interpersonal Therapy (IPT), Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and short term dynamic therapy.
As we fully launch into this new year, how willing are you to consider and, better yet, re-consider the ways in which you engage with depression, whether yours or that of a family member or friend? Rather than denying how crippling depression is or holding it in silence, how willing are you to name it for what it is and get the support necessary to manage and overcome it? How willing are you to validate yourself and your family by asserting that depression comes after even the best of us and that it is the very best of us who will engage a professional to cope with it? While our values for perseverance and protectiveness of our family and community’s reputation are essential, we must also remember the importance of critically evaluating the ways our values manifest themselves. When our values begin to be the source of our pain and anguish or limit us from taking care of ourselves or others, it is beneficial for us to consider whether our value or the application of our value is problematic. When our body or mind tells us that we are in pain, we ought to respond with something other than silence because we matter and deserve our distress to be responded to with comfort. Truth be told, we are all inherently worthy of happiness and comfort, whether we are educated, social justice-minded, community-organizing, God-fearing, queer, wealth-amassing, anti-racist, revolutionary, liberal-minded, or gender non-conforming. The critical question is, are you willing to believe that?
Dr. Bukky Kolawole is a NY-based licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping lesbian and gay couples cultivate the healthy and fulfilling relationships they deserve. She offers a range of services including therapy for couples experiencing difficulties, pre-marital counseling for couples headed to the altar and relationship enhancement workshops for couples who simply want to deepen their relationship. Dr. Bukky has offices in SoHo (Manhattan) and Park Slope (Brooklyn) and offers late evening hours to accommodate the needs of professionals. When Dr. Bukky is not helping couples save or enhance their relationships, you might find her performing spoken word at a wedding ceremony or snapping her fingers at an open mic event. For more info about Dr. Bukky, visit her website at www.drbukkyk.com.