Why We Must Finally Pay Attention to Black Women’s Mental Health

by Neisha Washington

In light of the recent passing of Titi Branch, entrepreneur and founder of Miss Jessie’s, due to a reported suicide, many have called for elevating the discussion of black women’s mental health into the wider consciousness. The story of black women and mental health is a difficult one to tell. It is not pretty. It is not poetic. It is something that requires stripping down to the bare bones of intersectionality and oppression. It is a story often told by examining the reasons for the silence in our communities, schools, and homes. It will take a toll on the myths of strength that black women have told ourselves to survive.

The story of mental health is a difficult one to tell, because sometimes it is our own. It is my story, and despite my love of poetry, I can’t seem to make this beautiful. This past year I found myself crawling to a counseling center as the stress of life, academic concerns, past trauma, and hopelessness became too much. “It’s not that I want to die,” I told the sympathetic PhD candidate across the room, “I just can’t take one more ounce of pain.” I had always been strong, but I could not seem to fathom taking another step. I could not seem to see a way out. I had always clung to hope, always tried to see the beauty in the most unfortunate of circumstances, but that day I found it difficult to breath. Even crying in a comfy chair, as the counselor across the room talked me down from the haze of anxiety, I was still afraid. I am not even 25 and life seems unbearable. What more could the future hold?

My worries about the future were compounded by the fact that I knew it could get much worse, and that I was not the only one struggling with mental health. My friend Linda, a black woman and beautiful spirit, tried to end her life just a few weeks ago. “If anything happens, just know I love you,” she texted that Sunday afternoon. I knew the effects of multiple traumas, shame, and the incredible pressure of donning a mask for survival had taken its toll, and she had decided she just couldn’t bear it anymore. I could not imagine life without my friend, but I could not blame her for being unable to see a way out. Thankfully, Linda sent the text to multiple people, and we all scrambled to contact family members to ensure her safety.

At what cost, though?

In my short life, I have born witness to so many black women in the midst of breakdowns, the acknowledgement of childhood trauma, coping with sexual assault, or just crumbling under the pain of the excruciating weight of being. We are all vibrant, beautiful souls. Why are we all struggling to exhale some days? Could Linda and others struggling with mental health realistically hope for a better future? What would that look like? Through the process of healing and personal growth, I have come up with a few solutions that may help create a more supportive community for black women like myself struggling with mental health.

Eliminate the Myths of Strength and Perfection

Linda and I shared times when we hid our depression out of fear for being judged as weak or a burden to friends and family. We were careful to guard our pain—only sharing it in whispered phone calls, in snatches of time away from broader society. Black women who go to therapy or admit they are struggling are often regarded as “weak”, “crazy”, or “self-pitying” for not stoically shouldering the burden of their families and communities. In order to better address the problem of mental health, we must stop shaming black women for not being strong or perfect. Black women can experience depression, because human beings experience depression. There is nothing coded in our DNA that makes us invulnerable to trauma, generations of pain, and unequal treatment in our families, communities. In order to create an open space for the discussion of mental health, we must allow ourselves to be human, and part of this is to acknowledge parts of ourselves are not always defined by strength.

Release the Stigma of Depression and Mental Health Services

While therapy is not the solution for everyone, it can have positive effects for those struggling with mental illness. However, there exists a heavy stigma around depression in African American community which leaves many women suffering in silence. “I’ve had many people tell me that I shouldn’t tell my business,” says Tracy Harriston in a Huffington Post interview. “What I’ve learned in the past 14 years is that [it] can destroy me.” Women like Tracy, who describes more than 15 suicide attempts, demonstrate the need for wider information about mental health services as well as community wide recognition that it is a real concern. By educating our community about the effects of depression we create an environment where black women are empowered to find solutions—and their families, partners, and friends are better able to support them.

Make Spirituality Part of a Larger Mental Health Practice

While prayer and spirituality can be a significant part of recovery, at times it can do more harm than good. Prayer can be a helpful form of meditation and self-reflection, but the problem arises when it is used to ignore deeper problems. For those who do not profess faith in a higher power or have experienced trauma in relation to religion, it can be impractical and even traumatic. In the words of psychologist Dr. Grant Jr.: “I do see psychic value in. . . a sturdy spiritual foundation. I do, however, have a problem with our community’s practice of praying ‘demons’ out of people plagued by schizophrenia, or beating the defiance out of a boy suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder.” Spirituality, therefore, should be encouraged in tandem with seeking alternative solutions.

Become Safe Spaces for Ourselves and Each Other

Often we are afraid to tell our stories, because we fear them being used against us. The reality of communities consumed by trauma is that individuals frequently take out the violence of oppression on themselves and others. Monitoring other black women for signs of “weakness” reinforces the idea that we must be perfect and immune to pain. Just as I hid my depression in an effort to dodge charges of “self pity” and “weakness,” I too had to recognize moments when I lashed out at other black women for not living up to my standards of emotional strength. After you have been conditioned to be disgusted by vulnerability, seeing it in another black woman can be terrifying. Instead of holding one another to impossible standards, we must learn to validate our own emotions and those of others.

Although, I struggled to find hope just a short while ago, I am optimistic. Linda and I have a nightly ritual of checking in with each other, unloading the worries of the day, and praying for joy in the next one. I have found much needed strength in my family, counselors, and friends. Black women suffering with mental health are not tragedies, self-pitying, weak, or somehow inauthentic. They are human beings living with very real health concerns that can affect anyone, and they are not meant to endure in silence. I encourage us all to think deeply and support our loved ones as they take the courageous stand against mental illness. This is just one step towards finding solutions. This is the effort of an imperfect, human, vulnerable, bold, black woman happy to take the next breath.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Neisha Washington is a graduate of DePauw University, graduate student, and regular contributor to For Harriet.

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