Exposure to racism and other stressors increase the risk for depression in Black folks and other people of color. But for Black women — who are impacted by racism, sexism, and other forms oppression — depressive symptoms appear differently than in other groups and may go overlooked by doctors. A December 2022 paper published in Nursing Research revealed that Black women are less likely to report classic symptoms of depression, such as sadness or hopelessness. Instead they note trouble sleeping, self-criticism, irritability, and an inability to experience pleasure. This discovery — made by researchers at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing and Columbia University School of Nursing — could mean Black women aren’t getting the mental health care they need.
Depression is a serious mental illness that can impact how a person feels, thinks, or behaves. It can also lead to emotional and physical problems that make it difficult to function at work or at home.
Changes in Appetite or Sleep
The illness is diagnosed by providers, based on symptoms reported by patients during an evaluation. Some other symptoms that are considered common include low mood, loss of interest in activities, and changes in appetite or sleep. While there are “common” symptoms, the reality is that depression appears uniquely for everyone.
With over 1,500 possible combinations of symptoms that meet the criteria for a depressive disorder, it’s not unusual for it to be undertreated. But with most research on symptom variation having been conducted on white people, it makes it even more likely that depression will be missed among Black women and other people of color.
The Black Woman Data
Black women are particularly at risk for major depressive disorder — or clinical depression — due to often bearing societal burdens like poverty, single parenthood, and racial and gender discrimination.
The researchers examined data from 227 Black women who were screened for depression as part of the Intergenerational Impact of Psychological and Genetic Factors on Blood Pressure (InterGen) study — an undertaking that sought to understand the genetics, psychological, and environmental factors that contribute to high blood pressure in Black mothers and children.
While the study results could be considered groundbreaking due to the lack of representation of Black women in previous research, the researchers caution against generalizing their findings as applicable to all Black women.