Daphne Watkins, PhD
“There is still so much to do to reach men who are dealing with depressive disorders. This is what motivates me and inspires my work.”
Daphne C. Watkins’ research focuses broadly on health promotion and disease prevention among underserved individuals and communities, and particularly on gender disparities in mental health. Her interest in the influence of gender role socialization on mental disorders among African-American men grew directly from the impact of growing up with a father and other family members who suffered from depression.
“There was always something about men and how they dealt with the trials and tribulations of life that caught my interest. I always wondered if it was depression or something else that resulted in men’s poor mental health outcomes,” she says.
Men and women often experience depression differently and have different ways of coping with its symptoms. For instance, some men may be less willing to acknowledge feeling sad, worthless, or guilty, but may admit to physical manifestations of depression such as fatigue, digestive disorders, and sleep disturbances. Depression in men is often undiagnosed and therefore untreated; and an estimated 1 in 4 men who have a disabling illness never receives treatment for it.
At its core, much of Watkins’ work is about giving a voice to those who might otherwise not be heard – or to those who may be hesitant to speak up at all. Among her many projects is a qualitative study in four major cities that examines African-American men’s experiences with depression; work that she says has been revealing, empowering, and inspiring.
“Men often tell me things like ‘I’ve never had an opportunity to tell someone how I feel.’ When I do focus groups with African-American men, the men say, ‘Wow, it is so refreshing to just sit and talk about our feelings and our thoughts, the stress that we experience, and how we handle the daily challenges around what it means to be a man.’ Responses like these make me question the authenticity of our society, particularly when we tell someone to ‘just be yourself.’ It makes me wonder: can we really handle what that means or will we continue to stigmatize men who do not conform to the traditional definitions of what it means to be a ‘real man?’”
Ultimately, the goal of the qualitative study is to produce an educational program about depression for African-American men and their families – based primarily on the words and ideas gathered from conversations about what the ‘face of depression’ looks like for African-American men, and how others can best reach an understanding of that experience.
“Whenever I talk to research participants, I let them know that they are the experts,” Watkins says, “and that hearing what they have to say is important in order to move forward with this work.”
Watkins stresses that mental health research needs to include a number of key players. These individuals will help bring solutions to populations who may be difficult to reach because of communication barriers or persistent stigma around mental illness. “We don’t exist in a bubble….and with so many people who are experiencing mental disorders, we should work harder to personalize our interventions and our treatment efforts, and really make an impact on their lives.” she says.