09/02/2011 07:23 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2012

Addressing Mental Health During This Economic Downturn

The Great Depression earned its name, not just because of the severe economic depression experienced in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, but additionally because the national mood was one of prolonged sadness and despair. As the unemployment rate rose up to 25 percent, people simply lost hope and mental health deteriorated.

Poverty is a leading cause of clinical depression, not just on account of causing one's mood to drop, but loss of access to healthy food, loss of sleep due to prolonged employment search, and overall decline of physical health are also contributing factors to depression and anxiety. Left untreated, this in turn can lead to increased rates of suicide. During the Depression, suicide rates reached an all-time high of 22.1 suicides per 100,000 individuals, a 22.8 percent increase from 1928 (pre-crash) to 1932 (unemployment was at 24.1 percent). There was an immediate spike in suicides after the stock market crash, jumping from 18.1 in 100,000 in 1929 from the 12.1 in 100,000 of the decade before. From 1930-1940 the suicide rate was 15.4 in 100,000.

We haven't reached Depression era levels of unemployment, but a double-digit (nearly 16 percent) jobless rate in the black community coupled with an increasingly bleak economic outlook (we'll see what plans President Obama and the Congress enact in September) is cause for major concern. Suicide is already the third leading cause of death for black men between the ages of 15 and 24 (rates are lower in black women and black men are seven times more likely to commit suicide). With a rate of unemployment for black male teenagers up near 50 percent and what we know about the correlation between joblessness/poverty and depression/suicide, this is a potentially dangerous and deadly moment.

Mental health is of particular concern for me. I myself was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder back in 2008. Before I sought therapy, depression ravaged my entire body and psyche. I was unable to graduate from college because I hid myself away and refused to talk to anyone about the very real and all-encompassing fear that had consumed my thoughts. At home, with no college degree, my anxiety only worsened as the country experienced wide-spread panic related to the housing market bubble bursting and the resulting financial crisis. Jobs were lost and I was further isolated as I became more and more uncertain about my future.

As we attempt to navigate these uncertain economic times, it's important that we become increasingly more sensitive to the issue of mental illness and proactive in discussions of mental health and wellness to ensure that those most vulnerable will have the help they need to survive. Mental illness still carries a damaging stigma, one that is pervasive and intensified in the black community, that often stalls the discourse needed to properly address otherwise treatable illnesses.

We should constantly be educating ourselves on mental health issues and encourage dialogue and treatment, but during this economic downturn it becomes ever more urgent.