09 29 2016
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Clinical depression affects Black women at a rate that is 50 percent higher than White women.
But the year-old clinic is experiencing another issue in the very community it was designed to serve: Black people don't often seek medical help to ease their mental health symptoms.
For almost 18 years, people would almost daily invade Sen. Avel Louise Gordly's personal space while she was in the grocery store, at the mall or in a restaurant.
The state's first Black woman to serve in the senate, Gordly is known for her collaborative spirit, compassionate smile and unrelenting patience. So, naturally, people often expected Gordly to listen to their personal problems. And she did, typically ending the conversation with a kind word.
"Be blessed," Gordly would often say, never letting on that she was fighting her own psychological battles.
"I went through long periods of not sharing, not saying out loud what it was I was thinking and feeling and suffering through," she admits. "I found ways to put Band-aids on my wounds and keep on showing up."
Saturday afternoon, at an event, titled "Redefining The Blues," Gordly will be publicly sharing her secret for the first time: She has suffered from deep depression since she was age 16.
According to the National Mental Health Association, more than 19 million Americans suffer from clinical depression each year. Symptoms, which usually last for two weeks or more, include persistent sadness, anxiety, insomnia or oversleeping, overeating or weight loss, restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and/or thoughts of suicide.
Clinical depression is caused by a biological imbalance of brain chemicals. It is considered a serious medical condition that affects your mood, thoughts, body and behavior. Without medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both, symptoms can last for weeks, months or even years.
"I was feeling like who am I going to talk to about what I'm going through," Gordly says. "Who is going to understand?"
Gordly, who was born and raised in Northeast Portland, has devoted much of her adult life to public service. After working as a community advocate for the Urban League of Portland and other local non-profits, she was basically pushed into accepting a 1991 House seat by local Black advocates, including Carl Talton, a longtime business leader who now serves as chief executive officer and president of Portland Family of Funds, a tax credit financial group. After serving three terms, Gordly was elected to the state Senate in 1996.
Living so much of her life in the public eye, Gordly buried her private sorrows. When she came home, though, the walls closed in, the tears flowed, and despite years of accolades, accomplishments and speeches in Switzerland, Africa and South Korea, at times, she says she felt unworthy of her own breath.
"There are the bouts of depression," Gordly explains, "where all you can do is sleep. And then it's time to get yourself together to go perform. And then you go to sleep again."
Her doctor warned her to take better care of her health. Instead, she continued to stuff emotional issues inside herself. She stuffed food, too, gaining an extra 60 pounds and doubling her dress size.
"Health wise," Gordly admits, "I let some things go."
Sensitive to her own struggles and that of her only child, Tyrone Waters, a U.S. Navy veteran, Gordly became a legislative champion for mental health causes. Her advocacy led to the opening of the Avel Gordly Center for Healing, a downtown clinic run by Oregon Health & Science University,  which specializes in serving African American clients.
But the year-old clinic is experiencing another issue in the very community it was designed to serve: Black people don't often seek medical help to ease their mental health symptoms.
Depression in the Black community is dismissed as The Blues, just a temporary setback, like a slow tune you could sway your hips to. About 63 percent of African Americans believe that depression is a personal weakness, compared to the overall survey average of 54 percent, according to a NMHA survey about attitudes and beliefs about depression.
At the same time, clinical depression affects Black women at a rate that is 50 percent higher than White women, according to DepressionIsReal.org, a national coalition of mental health organizations, including Mental Health America (formerly known as the National Mental Health Association) and the National Medical Association. Yet, only 7 percent of Black women receive treatment, compared to 20 percent of White women.
So, two years ago, OHSU's Dr. Christina Nicolaidis, who heads a number of research projects related to domestic violence and chronic illness in women, started a community-based research project that looks at the connectedness of depression in Black and Latino women to its triggers, such as encountering racism, witnessing neighborhood violence, viewing negative media images, dealing with relationship issues or experiencing loss of a job or loved one.
Her project, titled Interconnections, is funded by The National Institute of Mental Health and Kaiser Permanente Fund. It is attempting to create a culturally specific intervention that addresses Black women's:
• Longstanding mistrust of medical professionals;
• Stigmas about medication and/or therapy;
• Cultural barriers that dismiss the seriousness of depression;
• Socioeconomic issues that prevent them from being able to access medical care;
Former award-winning Oregonian columnist, S. Renee Mitchell, who for years has been upfront about her own struggles as a survivor of depression and domestic and sexual violence, organized the event, in partnership with Curious Comedy Productions, a non-profit in the new owner-occupied Vanport Square development on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Mitchell plans to perform poetry at the event. She also penned a special song, titled "Black Woman, What Are You Burying?"
"The song is intended to speak to the pain and secrets we bury deep inside ourselves," says Mitchell, a creative consultant on OHSU's Interconnections project and co-founder of the Healing Roots Center, a 3-year-old drop-in resource center in inner North Portland where the Interconnections project is based. The center's other co-founders are Bradley-Angle House and LifeWorksNW.
"As Black women, we're afraid to admit we have any problems because we don't want anyone to interpret that as a sign of weakness," Mitchell continues. "It's time to stop burying our feelings, when what we really need to do is bury the myth of the Strong Black Woman, because it's killing us, literally and figuratively."
Gordly, who is now teaching in Portland State University's Black Studies Department, says she is revealing her personal battle with depression to encourage Black women to create a safe space for others to share their stories, without judgment. Since people who are clinically depressed often withdraw from their loved ones, they may need their friends and family to motivate them or demand that they seek treatment.
"This is about letting our lights shine," Gordly says. "And when it looks like the light is out in our sisters' eyes, ask about that."
Gordly says her inner light is shining consistently brighter now. She is exercising more and paying attention to how her body is feeling. She says she proudly claims every one of her gray hairs and quenches her thirst for service by imparting her wisdom into the lives of PSU students.
"I just feel blessed to be here," Gordly says. "There's a counseling role that I didn't realize. These students are dealing with some serious stuff."
Gordly understands how turbulent one's life journey can be. Even though she made a personal decision to leave public office in early 2003, when her father died, Gordly says she held on, wrestling with feelings of guilt and regret, of letting the Black community down.
But the morning of Dec. 4, the day she cast her last vote as a senator, she felt so giddy, she danced around her condo's 682-square-foot living room until the hour-long album of Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Marvin Sapp finished its last note.
Later, on the Senate floor that day, her farewell remarks to her colleagues included this advice: "Be unafraid to lead, to risk, to be a truth teller. Be transparent."

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