The end-of-year holiday season is typically a time of celebration and social gatherings, but it can also bring about anxiety, loneliness, depression, and a good bit of self-reflection. Feelings of grief may be more pronounced at this time of year as well, when the absence of loved ones from annual events is plainly evident.
For Black Americans, who make up nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population, 21.4 percent report having a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). And they’re 20 percent more likely to experience serious psychological distress than white Americans, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) reports.
Higher rates of economic distress, overt and subtle racism, and inequitable social circumstances in the Black community increase the risk of depression or other mental illnesses, according to NIMHD. As with most people, these issues can become more pronounced around the holidays.
Whether the absence of a loved one, financial insecurity, or a mental health condition are contributing to anxiety, depression, or simply feeling off, the following can help you better understand the causes and prevent a spiral during the holiday season.
Mental Health Concerns in the Black Community
One major issue that’s on the rise among Black Americans, including youth, is suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while suicide rates decreased by 3 percent among white Americans between 2018 and 2021, they increased by 19.2 percent in the Black population during the same time period, and by 36.6 percent among those between ages 10 and 24. In one study, almost 10 percent of Black students reported attempting suicide, compared with just over 6 percent of their white peers.
Exposure to racial trauma and violence is one thing that puts members of the Black community more at risk of mental illness. But research suggests that other factors, such as poverty, homelessness, racial bias within the healthcare system and in society at large, and lack of access to health insurance and quality medical care also increase the likelihood that Black Americans will experience chronic and more persistent symptoms related to mental illness, according to Mental Health America.
Stigma around mental health challenges, along with commonly held stereotypes both within and outside the Black community, can also make Black people more vulnerable to mental illness. A commonly held misconception, for example, is that Black Americans are overly resilient and therefore do not need to seek therapy or mental health care, according to Mental Health America — and that doing so is a sign of weakness.
Janelle Watson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Los Angeles area, cautions that such inaccurate stereotypes are exceptionally dangerous and perpetuate avoidant behavior that deters treatment, further exacerbating mental health challenges among Black people.
Stress and PTSD in the Black Community
The socially and economically disadvantaged conditions in which many Black youth live put them at higher risk of toxic stress, which develops when the body’s response to frightening or threatening events or conditions becomes severe. According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, because Black adolescents are more likely to be exposed to such events, they are also more likely to have difficulties performing academically and to experience both behavioral and health problems.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also more common in Black Americans, research shows. PTSD often develops following exposure to a traumatic event and can include flashbacks, avoidant behavior, and mood and cognitive changes, among other symptoms.
Depression in Black Americans
Research shows that exposure to racism or self-perceived experiences with racism increase the likelihood that a person will develop clinical depression. After the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, rates of both anxiety and depression increased among Black Americans, according to a joint survey by the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. And the impact of his killing, along with the social unrest that followed during the height of the pandemic, is still felt by the Black community and has added insult to the injury of preexisting racial trauma.
Yet members of the Black community “remain less likely to seek treatment and face unique barriers when attempting to seek assistance from mental health providers,” says Watson. Stigma, lack of access to healthcare coverage, and distrust toward the medical and healthcare system all act as barriers to care and reduce help-seeking behavior among Black Americans, the research shows. As a result, it’s not uncommon for depression in Black Americans to go undiagnosed.
Distinguishing between sadness and symptoms associated with clinical depression can be difficult. “People often experience feelings of sadness after facing significant traumatic events during their lifetime,” says Watson, such as a divorce, the death of someone close to you, a natural disaster, or a job loss. These initial persistent feelings of sadness tend to dissipate after a traumatic event has ended and become more manageable over time.
If feelings of sadness and despair are unrelenting and last for prolonged periods — months, and sometimes even years — a person may be suffering from clinical depression, a whole-body experience that can affect a person’s thoughts, mood, motivation, behavior, appetite, energy, and level of interest in things they typically find interesting.
For many people with depression, symptoms can be severe enough to impair or impact their day-to-day activities, such as school, work, or their interactions with others. “It’s important to point out that people who are experiencing clinical depression feel significant changes … for prolonged periods of time with little to no reason,” says Watson. “This is very different from feeling sad or anxious after a triggering event for a few days or even a few weeks.”
What You Can Do
Whether you or someone you care about is experiencing clinical depression, an anxiety disorder, or holiday-related stress or anxiety, there are things you can do to find relief.
For those experiencing milder or more temporary holiday-related stress or blues, or who may want to try to prevent these symptoms, Watson suggests:
- Eat healthy and balanced meals.
- Get enough rest and sleep.
- Engage in activities you find fulfilling or calming.
- Set realistic goals and expectations for the holiday season.
- Keep track of holiday spending and stay within a budget.
- Accept and make peace with what can and cannot be accomplished during this time.
- Limit alcoholic beverages and other forms of consumption that might enhance sadness and loneliness.
- Volunteer to help others.
- Try not to dwell on comparisons between the past and present.
- Spend time mindfully.
- List a few things you are grateful for each day.
- If your stress is affecting your ability to follow a day’s normal schedule, speak with a mental health professional.
For those experiencing something longer-lasting or something more severe, such as clinical depression or an anxiety disorder, Watson recommends seeking help with a mental health professional, who may recommend therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of these things. But first, it’s important to find culturally competent care when possible. Someone with shared cultural and life experiences, including facing racism, discrimination, and structural inequities, can better understand and advise for your situation, according to NAMI.
When looking for a provider, it’s normal and acceptable to ask questions of a few providers to find the right fit. Keep in mind that much research on interventions and health outcomes for many conditions — and particularly for disorders such as depression and anxiety — has been conducted with a majority of white participants, and more research to ensure culturally competent care is needed. But for now, NAMI recommends asking:
- If the healthcare professional has treated other Black people or been trained in cultural competence for Black mental health — and if they use a different treatment approach for people of different cultural backgrounds
- If they think their cultural background will influence communication and treatment
- What is their current understanding of the differences in health outcomes for Black patients
It may not be possible to get rid of seasonal feelings of sadness or anxiety completely, but some of the tips above can minimize those feelings during such a challenging time for millions of Americans. For those who are sad or anxious but are not sure if they are experiencing a diagnosable mental disorder, Mental Health America offers online screenings. By acknowledging feelings of discomfort and taking action to address them, you can enjoy the holiday season even when things are far from perfect.