My work in developing a treatment for clinical depression is motivated by an experience I had shortly after moving to Madison for graduate school. 

One day, I sat next to a Black woman on the bus.  She struck up a conversation with me. 

“What are you studying?” the woman said. 

“I’m studying counseling psychology.” 

“Girl, let me tell you what happened to me the other day. When it gets cold, I get depressed, you know. Part of it’s being a Black woman in a white city. 

“I told my doctor about my mood swings. He recommended I get counseling. I didn’t want to go because you know how us Black folks feel about counseling. Plus, I didn’t want anyone thinking I was ‘crazy.’

“I finally got up the courage to go. In the first half-hour the counselor tells me I should see a psychiatrist about medication.  What’s wrong with that damn counselor? He didn’t spend any time getting to know me—just immediately started talking about medication. 

“I needed someone to talk to. Instead, he’s talking about medication. Girl, I never went back.” 

Racial Disparities 

That woman’s experience is all too common. 

A mismatch in expectations between provider and patient, and mistrust when minority patients seek help from white providers, are two of the obstacles faced by minorities seeking mental health services. 

Those obstacles have serious consequences for minority health

Clinical depression is the most common, costly, and debilitating psychological disorder in America. It’s more likely to be chronic and disabling among African Americans than it is whites. This disparity is even greater in Wisconsin.

Mental health care is critical to overcoming clinical depression. 

But according to a nationwide 2007 study, African Americans received adequate mental health care only 14% of the time. Additionally, studies show that African American patients leave psychotherapy and quit taking their medicine sooner and in larger numbers than white patients. 

‘Oh Happy Day’ 

At the core of my work is Oh Happy Day Class (OHDC), a culturally-adapted treatment for clinical depression. 

OHDC was developed in partnership with community stakeholders, African American living with depression, mental health providers, and faith leaders. This approach was designed to develop an intervention informed by the patients and the community. 

OHDC incorporates African American cultural beliefs into treatment and takes into account risk factors specific to African Americans. The class also recognizes preferred coping behaviors, including the use of religious coping and the preference for group counseling.

I and my team of advocacy board members are exploring options to offer OHDC in community settings. Several partners, including pastors, the Madison Area YWCA and the Urban League of Greater Madison have expressed interest in partnering to deliver OHDC.

Take Action

If you or someone you love is suffering from persistent low mood or emotional trauma, please do something about it:

  • If you have health insurance, contact your primary care doctor; 
  • If you’re a veteran, contact the VA; 
  • If you don’t have health insurance, contact Journey Mental Health Center (608-280-2700) or Access Community Health Centers (608-443-5480).  

If you or someone you loves is thinking about self-harm, dial the national suicide and crisis hotline at 988. Operators are on duty 24/7.

Dr. Earlise Ward is a licensed psychologist and professor at UW-Madison’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.