3 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Mental Health as a Black Woman

I don’t talk about my mental health.

Usually, I don’t talk about it on principal. Or, because, you know, the old (perhaps Conservative) Mennonite Proverb/11th Commandment- thou shalt keep your familial business private. 

Or, my personal favorite: mental health? What’s that?

But, I have found that there is a certain kind of strength in sharing parts of my mental health journey because it allows healing from the shame, and when we allow feelings or experiences to stay in shame, we deny ourselves healing and freedom.

So here is a journey story. It’s a journey story to Arizona. And, it is a journey story that includes my mental health and my blackness.

Black female mental health is a particularly unique experience because of how socio-cultural expectations shape public perception and how racism (including microaggressions and community-specific stigmas) compound and complicate mental health.

As a black woman, I have found myself navigating between the juxtaposing stereotypes and tropes of #angryblackwoman and #strongblackwoman and #resilientblackwomen, and, #mythicblackstrength., while realizing that I have often lived from a reactionary place due to casual everyday racism, systemic injustice, trauma and fear.

And, that this reality has and takes a very real toll on my body.

This is an acknowledgement of that reality. It is not a judgement. It is a “YES, AND…”

As a child, I was often not aware of the tools and resources I would need to learn and unlearn, nor the ideologies I would need to unpack or internalize in order to heal and promote mental wellness. As an adult, I am just getting started. So  perhaps it seems silly to develop a list about strategies for mental health.

After all, I still don’t have it together, Karen.

But, I have found it helpful and empowering reading other black and POC writings about mental health, and I wanted to create an authentic space for empowerment and self-awareness.

I suffered my first panic attack a few months ago. Depression had crept up on me when I was 12 years old, and by 25, I was used to recognizing its symptoms by the four F’s: Fear, Fatigue, Frustration and Food.

Growing up, I was swept through a myriad of counselors and would often try to journal, cry or run the depression out of my system. And yeah, that’s not really a thing – but I still tried it. As an adult, I learned to cope with my depression through a variety of self-care techniques, truth telling exercises and professional counseling. And, yet here I was: 25 years old and experiencing a full-blown panic attack in the shower.

As one of those people with the ever helpful self-help friends and community members, I was familiar with the statistics of mental health and black women. A University of Cambridge study concluded that black women aged between 16-34 are more prone to self-harm than white women, mainly through some form of substance abuse.

And, while I have never abused substances, it was all too apparent to me that I, like many of my black female friends struggled with mental health.

And, I also suspected that stereotypes, institutional racism and generational trauma were distinguishing and contributing factors as to why black women were particularly unique in regard to mental health. So, while distinguished scholars and academics have provided a plethora of resources in unpacking these factors, I wanted to offer some of my own strategies.

Recently, my husband and I made a cross-country move. It was a move we had spent intentional time praying about and discerning, and it was also a move in which we both wrestled with feelings of loneliness and lack of support.

It was a particularly rough move for me. On top of the extensive packing and planning, I was also dealing with some health issues, some deeper personal transitions related to my biological family, sexual trauma and the persistent feeling of falling short of expectations.

At first, I thought that I could keep it all together. I would encourage myself to be a little stronger…a little bit more tough. And, for a while I fooled myself into thinking that I had it all together. I would cook and clean with renewed ferocity and then cry myself to sleep at night. And, then someone would tell me how strong I was, and I would think that I was. After all, wasn’t this the caricature of the strong black woman? Long-suffering and yet a badass? As, a perfectionist, I would strive to make sure that every detail was perfect while maintaining my facade.

1. It’s Okay to be Human. 
I know, I know. This tip is obvious and super cliche. But, it also works. So, who cares if it is chintzy. Giving myself space and allowing myself the grace to make mistakes instantly makes my anxiety go down, and I am able to change the way in which I self-talk.

At my most extreme, I have had six panic attacks in one day. Committing to grounding techniques including breathing exercises and touchstones have helped me to combat my anxiety. But, I also commit to doing a body check-in. Sometimes, this looks like routines. For example, during the #metoomovement, I would often be triggered every time I would turn on the radio or read the news. One way in which I committed to combating this was through routines. Each day, I would commit to taking a hot shower and doing a centering exercise while speaking loving phrases to my body.

After Charlottesville, I often would speak positive racial encouragements to myself like: “I love my natural hair.” Or, “I love my skin color.” Or, “I am proud to be a black woman.

Commit to feeling and letting go. Commit to grace.

2. It’s Okay to Ask for Help
There is a stigma about asking for professional mental health in the black community. Personally, I believe that the stigma is linked closely with internalized ideologies of strength and resilience. But, perhaps that is a conversation for another time.

Yes, African-Americans are 10% more likely to suffer from mental health problems than their White counterparts, and only about 25% of those diagnosed will seek professional mental health compared to 40% of white people. And, likely this disparity is related to the stigma of seeking help in the black community as well as access to resources, etc. and distrust,

A sociological term which also helps to explain medicinal distrust in communities of low income and communities of color is “social distance.” This concept refers to one’s place in society compared to someone else’s place in society. Historically, people of color and persons with lower income have less access to medicinal education and more knowledge of historical abuses. This combination can create feelings of distrust and uneasiness, which can also perpetuate stigmas.

This stigma first reared it’s head when I was a child. And, it became quite apparent to me that asking for help was only acceptable for certain people who “needed help.” Depression never qualified as an acceptable reason. So, my rounds in therapy often resulted in contentious drama.

As an adult, I became familiar with the stereotype and accusation that “black women don’t get depressed.” Too often, the role of the “strong black woman” becomes damning as this persona emits a kind of mythic strength. While slavery created many dominating and controlling images of black womanhood which relied on maintaining Black women’s subordination, the “strong black woman” caricature was a developed and intentional response. According to activist and scholar, bell hooks, the image of the strong black woman “conveys that Black women have built in capacities to deal with all manner of hardship without breaking down, physically or mentally”

While the description of the “strong black women” emphasizes the societal place of Black women, it has often been used to chastise Black women whom openly suffer from mental illness. In Neale Hurston’s iconic work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, she attests that “the black woman is the mule of the world.”

Often expected to overcome mental illness much to the same degree as our ancestors overcame slavery, I often wrestle with the reality that there is often less compassion for POC’s with mental illness (within both Black and White communities) because of our history of historical oppression and resilience.

It takes courage to ask for help. It takes courage to recognize that you need additional tools and resources. And, it takes courage to stand up for yourself when your support system may be no longer supporting you. Be courageous anyway. You are worth it.

3. Don’t Allow People to Dismiss What You are Feeling and/or Experiencing
Growing up as a trans-racial adoptee, I often felt that my experiences of racism were dismissed. This isn’t to say that all trans-racial families will create this culture,but I want to point out that many times my experiences were invalidated.

And, in turn, I often dismissed my own experiences.

I remember inquiries about was such and so family member really racist? Certainly, I must have misunderstood (my favorite buzzword…)..after all…they were born in 1930 etc., and it was acceptable back then…

While, perhaps, my familial culture is different than that of many others, I think it is important to note that the overall dismissal of the culture of racism goes overlooked.

There will be days when you might struggle to get out of bed. There may be days when you overeat. And, there may be people with the ever helpful statements like, “someone out there has it worse than you…” They might try to tell you to power through, or just rub some dirt in it, or whatever. Don’t let that prevent you from seeking professional help.

Trust your gut. If you know that you are in an unsafe space (again, clarify between unsafe and uncomfortable), trust yourself. Set good boundaries. You know your body best. Trust that you will make good decisions. Respect your body enough to ask for the help you need.

I will never forget the first time someone spit on me and then yelled “stupid black girl”. I was at a track meet, and I remember being so humiliated that I went behind the bleachers and cried. I was terrified to tell anyone. What if no one believed me? What if they said that I misunderstood. I knew in my gut that what I had experienced was related to my color, but I was afraid that no one at the PWI would understand or respond in a way that was appropriate. So, I didn’t say anything. As an adult, I wish that I would have given someone the opportunity to stand up for me.

Trust yourself and your experiences, and know that you are a wonderful, lovely human being deserving of love.

Because I am all for empowerment and resources, here are two sites that I thoroughly enjoy in regard to black mental health.

Resources:
For Harriet: Celebrating the Fullness of Black Womanhood. Created by Kimberly Foster, For Harriet, is an online space featuring writings and articles by black women and women of color.

Therapy for Black Girls: Spearheaded by Dr. Joy, a Psychologist based in Atlanta, GA. Therapy for Black Girls is an online space dedicated to encouraging the mental wellness of Black women and girls.


Shalom always.

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