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Keeping It 100: The Truth About Black Women & Our Mental Health

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July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, and I felt it to be imperative to spotlight the struggles Black women have when it comes to our mental health status, and gaining the support and help we need.  This is the second time I have discussed this topic on the blog, and I aim to keep the dialogue going until stigma and shame are no longer forced upon those of us who live with mental illness.

“Real” Sistas Must Always Be Strong!:  The Myths that Keeps Black Women From Getting Help & Understanding Mental Illness

In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of the most infamous lines from the book was when Janie was told by her grandmother Nanny that “black women were the mules of the world.”  Nanny was referring to the fact that black women have always carried the heavy load since we were brought to this country, and we still do carry a mighty burden in the 21st century.

There is a constant tug-of-war, so to speak, that Black women endure – the conflicting misconceptions of how we are to look, act, behave, achieve, and tolerate.  Some of what I have been told, and have heard from other Black women are the following:  “No man wants an outspoken woman;” “crying is for the weak, always put on the brave face;” “keep your emotions to yourself, it is no one’s business;” “do not be ‘too loud’ or you will look ‘ghetto;’” etc.  We get it from all sides, from those within our families and the Black community, the mainstream, and the most damaging, from ourselves by what we have internalized as the “ideal” model for Black women to become.  In a sense, it is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation – you cannot be too much or too little of something without someone having an opinion about it.

As Black women, we are shaped (and sadly, misshapen) by these misbeliefs of who, what, and how we “should” be.  Many of us are under the false perception that we should always be strong, so strong to the point where we refuse to admit we need help when we can barely keep our heads above water.  This mentality can manifest into something life-threatening (sometimes too little, too late) when we finally admit that we cannot conquer our health, specifically our mental health, alone.

Keeping It 100:  The Realness of How Mental Health Affect Black Women

Black Americans make up roughly 25% of the mental health needs in this country, though we represent 13.2% of the total U.S. population.  The rates of mental health conditions are higher for Black women than other groups due to the oppressive experiences we encounter – racism, sexism, violence, sexual exploitation, and cultural alienation and ostracization.  These hardships has affected the psyche and mental health of Black women for centuries, and it should not be surprising that Black women would lag behind Whites and other women of color when it comes to prevalence rates and accessing mental health services.  Our fears of being ridiculed and shamed if we were to openly acknowledge and vocalize the consequences these unjust levels of hardships have had on our mental state has unfortunately perpetuated the silence that existed for far too long.

Other Barriers That Stymie Our Abilities to Tackle Our Mental Health

The hardships we face are not the only culprits to us ignoring and failing to address our mental health needs; medicalized racism and inadequate availability of culturally-competent services have also played tremendous roles in our struggles.

Black Americans have a tendency to seek out supports within one’s community comforts due to the levels of mistrust and reluctance in utilizing outside resources.  Black women, especially, rely on their families, community, and religious community during emotional distress, and at times, feel that these entities can provide some form of a “cure” for whatever affliction they have.  “Pray it away” and “let Jesus fix it” are common sayings uttered when troubled times are felt, including mental health occurrences.  Though family, community, and spirituality can indeed provide support; in many cases, outside resources and services are needed in conjunction so that the individual can transition into a better state of being and living with their mental health condition.

Those within the mental health profession who have met the resistance of Black women seeking services have failed to understand the cultural “pushback” they witnessed.  Instead, they viewed these individuals as being “non-compliant” or “ignorant” when that is far from the truth.  Black Americans, and Black women specifically, are not pushing back from them because they do not want the services or believe they would not benefit from them – they simply believe that the resources they already have at their disposal share a common bond and understanding about who they are and what they are enduring versus those who may not be competent or respectful to their cultural needs.  Mental health professionals have failed to not only connect the historical mistreatment of Black women to their resistance, but also to recognize the dire need for diversity within the mental health professional realm.  We need more Black mental health specialists who are culturally aware and can reach Black women in ways that their non-Black colleagues cannot.

The lack of cultural competency has affected Black women’s participation to access mental health services, as well as our diagnoses rates.  Medicalized racism has allowed disparities to transpire when it comes to Black women being under-diagnosed with conditions like depression, and over-diagnosed with conditions like schizophrenia.  For example, Black women are estimated to experience depression at a 50% higher rate than White women; yet, the numbers surrounding depression do not adequately express the reality of this truth.  The hesitation of being mislabeled and/or not knowing exactly what is “wrong” are reasonable concerns Black women have – why seek help if the help received may not be appropriate?

Refusing to Remain Quiet:  Black Women Speak Out & Banish Stigma

Black women are realizing the crucialness of empowerment by advocating for themselves when it comes to living with mental illness.  Online, I read many articles from Black women about how they had to come to terms with their mental health status, and demanded appropriate services when they decided to loosen the grip silence and stigma had on them.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s interview with Olisa.TV about living with depression deeply resonated with me.  Chimamanda has a reputation of being unapologetic about her views of the world and fearlessly speaks her mind; to read her experience with depression provides a voice for many Black woman, and those of the African diaspora, who share a similar plight:

“I have actually always been quite open about having depression.  By depression, I don’t mean being sad.  I mean a health condition that comes from time to time and has different symptoms and is very debilitating.  I’ve mentioned it publicly in the past, but I have always wanted to write about it.  I was meeting many people who I could tell were also depressive, and I was noticing how hush-hush it all was, how there was often a veil of silence over it, and I think the terrible consequence of silence is shame.

Depression is difficult.  It is difficult to experience, difficult to write about, difficult to be open about.  But I wanted to do it. For myself, in a way, because it forced me to tell myself my own story, which can be helpful.  But also for other possible sufferers, especially fellow Africans, because there is something very powerful about knowing that you are not alone, and that what happens to you also happens to other people.

Depression is something I have recognized since I was a child.  It is something I have accepted.  It is something I will have to find ways to manage for the rest of my life.  Many creative people have depression.  I wonder if I would be so drawn to storytelling if I were not also a person who suffers from depression.

But I am very interested in de-mystifying it.  Young creative people, especially on our continent, have enough to deal with without thinking – as I did for so long – that something is fundamentally wrong with feeling this strange thing from time to time.  Our African societies are not very knowledgeable or open or supportive about depression.  People who don’t have depression have a lot of difficulty understanding it, but people who have it are also often befuddled by it.”

Lisa Nicole Carson, actress from the 90s hit show Ally McBeal, shared her plight with bipolar disorder with Essence Magazine.  Lisa’s remarks about the myth of Black women having to always be strong was powerful, and a great reminder to those of us who have trouble keeping the “strength mask” from cracking:

“I’m tackling the myth that African-American women have to be pillars of strength.  We have the right to fall.  We have the right not to always have our sh– together.  We just have to take our mental health as seriously as we do the physical.  Do not be afraid to go to a therapist or a doctor to make sure everything is fine.  I am excited for my new chapter.  I now am stronger and ready for what’s next, while taking care of my emotional health.”

Chimamanda and Lisa are not the only Black women ramping their voices about mental health.  Young Black women, especially, are shattering the glass of silence, and are urging their fellow Sistas to not be ashamed, and to seek help.  Last summer on the blog, I shared my own battle with depression that was triggered by a stressful life event.  Since then, I have made it a priority to be aware of potential triggers, and be more proactive when it comes to protecting my mental health.  Sharing my story was very therapeutic, and allowed me to gain some form of closure from that event.  Telling our stories does not only benefit us personally, but may unknowingly, save a life.

Final Thoughts

This month, let’s be on the side of empowerment, and lead discussions about this topic.  Our very lives as Black women depend on such dialogues; we possess the power to embrace and uplift each other because we need each and every one of us here.

For more information about mental health, racially-specific information for African Americans, and how to get help, check out the following resources:

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):  http://www.nami.org

NAMI’s List of African American Mental Health Resources:
http://www2.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=Resources&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=21024

National Institute for Mental Health – Help for Mental Illnesses:
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/find-help/index.shtml

SAMHSA’s List of Resources on Black Americans & Mental Health:
http://www.samhsa.gov/behavioral-health-equity/black-african-american

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of The Grio/Shutterstock.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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