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DIANE MAKAR MURPHY Breaking silence on depression in black women



Published: Thu, May 3, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Having depression is like being on a roller coaster. For Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, the depths were so low she sometimes barely got out of bed.

"My relationship with depression began long before I noticed it," Danquah writes in "Willow Weep for Me" -- a Black Woman's Journey Through Depression. "I don't remember the step-by-step progression of the illness. ... I gradually lost my ability to function. It would take me hours to get up out of bed, get bathed, put clothes on."

Danquah will speak about her experience at a dinner and conference in Cleveland on May 16 and 17.

A Los Angeles native, Danquah is a poet, author and journalist. Her book is a powerful insight into depression, especially as it affects women and women of color.

Her story: After finishing "Willow Weep for Me," I found Danquah, via the Internet, in Africa -- a one-year visiting scholar at the University of Ghana, her birth land. She agreed to an e-mail interview. But first, let me tell you a bit of her story.

"Many names and skins have been shed in order for me to evolve into the person I now am," she writes in "Willow." In Africa, and on her birth certificate, she was Mildred Mary Nana-Ama Boakyewass Brobby, Nana-Ama to playmates.

When Danquah was 3, in 1970, her mother left her family behind, leaving for America. Three years later, her parents reconciled, and moved to Washington, D.C. where Danquah became Mildred Brobby, "which I imagined was the most ghastly name a person could have."

The insecurity of her mother's abandonment, her accent and Ghanian fashion, and the cruelty of young children, combined to make her a target. She was Silly Milly, Mildew, the African monkey.

"Even when I was in Ghana," Danquah writes, "I had been somewhat fragile, especially after my mother left, but these experiences in America shattered any personal pride I felt ..."

Moving to Maryland ended the teasing, but brought another problem. Danquah's mother, now pregnant, and father separated after many loud fights. Danquah was now fatherless.

These years may have been the beginning of Danquah's depression. A depression she couldn't, wouldn't, identify until it had ended friendships, disrupted her career and education, and led her to feel guilty about the way she cared for her daughter.

One evening, she stared into a mirror and finally admitted, "this is the face of a depressed person. ...This is my face." Her treatment included psychotherapy, medication, and identifying those things in her that triggered her sadness and deciding what she could do about them.

Involved: Today, Danquah is involved in the mental health community. "I joined forces with the National Mental Health Association's Campaign on Clinical Depression ... because I am supportive of and care deeply about the advocacy work they are doing," she said in our interview.

"There is a huge silence surrounding the subject of depression. People don't talk about it openly or directly," she said. "There is a lot of shame and stigma still attached to depression, which sometimes leads to fear. I think people don't seek treatment early because they are afraid."

Danquah said she thinks people imagine they can "snap out of it" on their own. Race, gender, and culture certainly "add another dimension to the shame, stigma and fear."

"African-American women are very often made to feel that their role is that of caregiver and nurturer. We are made to feel as if we must be strong and since depression is seen ... as a sign of weakness, it is something that we ... feel we can not acknowledge ...," Danquah said.

As to her own depression, Danquah said, "I don't believe in cures. For anything, I have come to believe that all illnesses are a call for transformation. While I am a supporter of medical treatments, including psychiatric medications, I think the whole notion of an instant cure to anything is dangerous. ... It strips us of our opportunity to investigate our lives and, ultimately, to make the necessary changes in our commitments, our relationships and ourselves so that we can lead healthier lives."

"I wouldn't say that I am in control of my depression," she said, "but I would say that depression is not in control of me."

For information on the conference, "Caregiving Across the Lifespan," and Danquah's speech, contact (216) 241-3400. To inquire about the dinner call Michael Marcellino, (216) 241-3400, ext. 304.




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