Mental Illness and the African Woman

by Nancy Laws

It took me three years to tell my family that I suffered from anxiety and panic disorder. Even then, I was still ridiculed for saying that I had panic attacks, and was told by a very close family member that I was pretending for more attention.

Because of this, I couldn’t even imagine telling my parents that I suffered from postpartum depression after giving birth to my daughter, Ally. Mental illness is rarely discussed in the African community, especially in very religious families like mine. Although I suffered from a severe eating disorder in high school, I did not realize that I had one until we discussed them in detail during my junior year psychology class. I was so ashamed of my disorder, and the possibility of mental illness, that I hid it from everyone. Fear of being accused of being weak—or worse, possessed—left me fighting an uphill battle alone for many years. As a matter of fact, I did not seek help for my anxiety or eating disorders until two years into my marriage.

The word depression alone is not culturally acceptable in most African communities. Depression is often mistaken for ‘the blues,’ due to the stigma of mental illness in the community, and those who suffer from mental health problems never receive the help they need. Many are forced to hide their struggles with very little community support available. With poverty and other pressing public health issues (such as HIV/AIDS) affecting many communities and countries throughout Africa, it is hard to create a spotlight for mental illness. But it must be done. Just because we do not discuss it, does not mean that it does not exist. Many simply choose to keep their struggles with mental and emotional health hidden due to their fear of being ridiculed.

Black women have always had to be strong. This affects our attitudes towards mental illness, whether we are in Africa, Europe, or America. African women are the backbones of our families. We carry most of the responsibilities and expected to take care of everyone else. This means there is rarely enough time left in the day to focus on ourselves, let alone any mental health issues we may be suffering from.

We should make more of an effort to speak about mental illness, in order to create opportunities for change and acceptance. Although sharing the truth about anxiety disorder with my family did not create the change that I hoped it would, I was able to find out that my brother suffers from social anxiety and has kept it hidden for a long time. By me opening up, it created a way for us to support each other.

Below are some tips that have helped me cope with my mental health issues:

Communicate with others about how you’re feeling.

I have learned to express myself, even when I know it may cause conflict. “People-pleaser” is my middle name, so I often allow people to walk all over me. By speaking up for yourself, you prevent the negative feelings from remaining stored up, and causing more stress and anxiety. I am slowly but surely learning to let people know when they have upset me.

Love and take care of yourself.

This is easier said than done. Trust me, as a woman who has struggled with an eating disorder for the better part of the last seven years of my life, I know that this can be challenging. But I have found ways to love myself by acknowledging the things that make me beautiful. Speak positivity into your life, and stay away from people who love to criticize.

Recognize the symptoms and triggers.

I have learned when an anxiety attack is being triggered, so I can remove myself from whatever situation is causing the trigger. Mental illness can trigger a lot of other problems. I recently learned that my anxiety made me more vulnerable to eating disorders, something I never knew. I always thought I had an eating disorder before my anxiety disorder, but it was the other way around. By knowing what is a trigger, I have also learned what helps me to cope. I have also learned how to avoid certain triggers when I can.

Seek help from both professionals, as well as friends and family.

There is no shame in admitting that you need help. In addition to getting professional help from a therapist or psychiatrist, it is also important to have a great personal support system of family and friends. My biggest support comes from my husband, Corey. He has been by my side through everything and I love him for it.

Mental illness is not something you should feel ashamed about. By speaking up about our issues, we can encourage others to speak up about the mental and emotional health challenges they have also faced.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Nancy Laws is a 25-year-old freelance writer, editor, and blogger. She enjoys writing about natural beauty, African fashion, her background as an African woman, and social issues in the black community. You can follow her blog at

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