Mental illnesses like depression can be very difficult to diagnose or to recognize: There is no serum to test for when looking for depression. In some real if rather vague way, mental health is simply the absence of mental disorders. And in the reverse we define mental illness as the absence of mental health. The circularity of this definition is certainly confusing, but it reflects the real confusion over the range of what may be considered to be mentally "normal." This vagueness as to definition does not mean that the problem of mental illness and especially depression is not real: Indeed, the difficulty of identifying those with mental illness and so of providing prompt and appropriate treatment to them makes the need to do so more effectively all the more important (Grob, 1991, p. 13). The need to identify mental illness in - and so to treat it in - some populations is even greater than the needs of other populations because these populations are in general underserved in terms of the treatment of both physical and mental health. Among these are members of minority populations, who in addition to having less access to health care for economic reasons are often all the more in need of it because their minority status produces higher-then-usual levels of stress in their lives. This stress can either cause or exacerbate mental illness, especially depression.
In general, as Solomon (2002) suggests, we may view mental disorders as those states of mind that create either distress or a significant impairment in an important way of functioning. A wide range of mental conditions can cause either such distress or such a limitation in the ability to function; depression is simply one of these. Mental illness is, like physical illness, classified into a number of groups that reflect current knowledge both about what causes these conditions and what may be done to treat them. It should be noted that the standard classification of mental disorders is less exact than that afforded to physical disorders, where specific parasites can be identified. (We know without doubt what a tuberculosis bacillus looks like; we do not know how to recognize exactly what a human soul that is being damaged by depression looks like.)
There are two very widely used diagnostic tools to determine what mental illness may be affecting someone: mental health professionals in most countries follow the International Classification of Diseases (which is overseen by the World Health Organization). American mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (almost always called the DSM), which is updated and revised every few years as more research and clinical findings change our understanding of different mental illnesses. The causes of depression cited in the DMS-IV include both biological and possibly genetic causes as well as a range of environmental ones. In many individuals, depression is caused by an interaction between biological and environmental (both personal and general) factors.
According to both of these forms of classification, depression is categorized as an affective disorders, which means that it is one of the forms of mental illness in which the defining characteristic is a mood disturbance. The affective changes in depression is a feeling of sadness (which matches with the popular understanding of the disorder) but it is also marked by feelings of guilt, as well as helplessness and hopelessness. It is these last three that are at least as debilitating as the sadness itself.
Mental illness is far more common than many people realize, which makes it all the more important that we each be able to recognize it in others and be able to offer at least some help for the condition. It is impossible to know exactly how many people are afflicted with mental disorders. Certainly, we can gain some sense of the problem from the numbers of admissions to psychiatric facilities, but many, many people who suffer from mental illness never seek treatment. This may be especially true in minority populations in which there is prejudice in the community against being treated for such conditions as well as lack of good information about treatment possibilities (Hickey etal, 1996).
Socially Reactive Depression
One of the reasons that mental illness, and perhaps most especially depression, is so difficult to fight against is that it saps the person's very will to fight, as Yapko (1998) argues. While anyone would be frightened to be diagnosed with cancer, of course, for most people that initial fear is replaced (or at least supplemented) by anger, by a desire to defeat the disease that is trying to defeat one. Depression robs one of the ability to feel that necessary anger. One of the consequences of this fact is that far too few of those who are suffering from depression seek the treatment that they need. And one of the consequences of this is the fact that the incidence of depression in the population at large and to at least as great a degree in minority communities is greatly under-reported:
However, there are some firm figures:
Up to 15% of the U.S. population is likely to suffer from a mental disorder during the course of a year
At any given time, three percent of the U.S. population is under care for mental disorders
Currently in the United States, more patients in hospitals are receiving treatment for mental illness than for any one physical illness
The risk for developing depression is, over one's lifetime, one in ten (Jones, 1994, p. 202).
In minorities, depression can be triggered through the phenomenon of social reactivity. In other words, members of certain groups (children, women, racial minorities) often become depressed because they live in depressing conditions - marked by hopelessness, poverty, racism and other conditions often found in minority communities.
A reactive depression occurs when you develop many of the symptoms of depression in response to the stress of a major life problem, but they are not severe enough to be considered a major depression (http://www.psychologyinfo.com/depression/women.htm).
Reactive depression is frequently prompted by feelings of low self-esteem, which is a problem experienced by many African-Americans (as well as the members of other minority groups), especially during the years of adolescence, which brings its own issues of problematic self-esteem that for minorities may compound already existing self-esteem problems. Certainly some elements of depression lie in the brain chemistry of an individual; certainly other elements of depression lie in the particular experiences of an individual. But other aspects of depression lie in the general conditions that attend the lives of many Americans, and especially of minorities.
People who have low self-esteem, who consistently view themselves and the world with pessimism, or who are readily overwhelmed by stress are more prone to depression. Psychologists often describe social learning factors as being significant in the development of depression, as well as other psychological problems. People learn both adaptive and maladaptive ways of managing stress and responding to life problems within their family, educational, social and work environments. These environmental factors influence psychological development, and the way people try to resolve problems when they occur....If a child grows up in a pessimistic environment, in which discouragement is common and encouragement is rare, that child will develop a vulnerability to depression as well (http://www.psychologyinfo.com/depression/causes.html).
Relationships Among Ascribed Status and Depression
The relationship between ethnic identity and mental health has not been widely studied, particularly not in adolescents. A study of Native American adolescents performed by Oetting and Beauvais (1991) found that for this particular ethnic group, identification with both the native and the white American culture was closely related to high self-esteem and good school adjustment; this may also be true for some African-American adolescents. In a more general study of ethnic minority groups in the United States, strong ethnic identity but also strong mainstream identity was found to predict higher self-esteem and psychological well-being (Kvernmo & Heyerdahl 2002).
The above cited study found that there were significant gender differences between minority girls and boys; although this study was focused on particular ethnic groups in northern Europe, there is no reason that the findings reported here should not apply to minority adolescents in a variety of cultures (including the United States) given that the conditions that produce the stresses that lead to suicide attempts in these groups also obtain in a variety of other social and cultural circumstances.
Not only race and ethnicity but also gender affects self-esteem and depression - as well as rates of suicide, which is the worst-case outcome of suicide. Minority male adolescents seem to be at greater risk for depression ending in suicide than are minority girls. It is possible that the suicide risk for minority adolescent girls is in general lessened from what it might be by the fact that girls of all races are more likely than boys to seek counseling for depression (itself of course a major risk factor for suicide). A corollary to this is the fact that minorities of all genders…