About 12 years ago, while researching an enterprise story on the stigma of mental illness, I came across this clause: "Trying to find depression among the indigent is like trying to find emphysema among coal miners." That is to say, all too common.
I can't say I was too surprised, because before then I had suspected that the problems in the 'hood weren't so much cognitive but emotional and thought that folks there might benefit from a good therapist.
For the past 30-odd years and even now, you have a lot of people complaining about "the poor" and their alleged freeloading from the rest of society. I have no doubt that it happens, but today I believe that there's more than "laziness" involved.
It might be clinical depression. I'm serious, as someone who has suffered from such since age 10.
Consider the symptoms: Sleep disturbances, whether sleeping too much or not enough. Changes in appetite, whether greater or less. Irritability. Feelings of hopelessness. Loss of interest in normal things, including hygiene. Thoughts of death or even suicide. That could very well be driving some of the nihilistic behavior that goes on there, including sabotaging economic or educational opportunities, gang violence etc.
And trust me -- it's not something that you can simply "snap out of"; some professionals have suggested that it's caused by a brain chemical imbalance (and thus often treated with medication).
So why don't folks simply go in for treatment? In the African-American community there's still a resistance to such things because of cultural mistrust of the medical profession. On top of that, there's still a stigma attached to mental illness -- the subject of my story in 2000 -- that keeps people from admitting that they need help. (In that story I wrote, one of the subjects was an associate pastor of a thriving evangelical church that had had a breakdown.)
Frankly, I don't know how to solve this problem on such a mass level, but from 1983-5, during my darkest hours, a group of students I met through a church rallied around me and gave me hope. They didn't judge me; they didn't think of me as weak. Gradually I began to take steps to rebuild my then-shattered life; to this day I shudder to think where I would be, if anywhere, had I not met them.
I've heard that the church referred to as a "therapeutic community," and that's what I was privileged to find. But we can't be that when we've already determined their character -- we need to learn the stories, hear the pain, rail against the injustices -- in short, give them voice. I would say that such people need to be not demonized but heard.