February 14, 2022
Acknowledging Black Women's mental health concerns is a crucial first step to providing support.
For many Black women such as myself, our story is one of tenacity, perseverance and determination. While the long-standing stereotype of being a "strong, Black woman" can often help us cope with the hardships of being Black in America, it's not without its disadvantages. Given that the experiences of Black women cross the intersections of racism, sexism, classism and health inequities, our mental health needs often go overlooked and unfulfilled.
Black American adults are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.
"Whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, Black women are experiencing higher rates of mental health issues because these issues are all exacerbated by racism-based trauma and stress," says Ayanna Abrams, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist.
How Past and Current Trauma Affects Mental Health
According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, race-based exclusion from health, educational and social resources directly translates into the socioeconomic disparities experienced by African Americans. These disparities have cultivated an atmosphere of mistrust between Black people and the medical field. This form of medical racism often results in patients feeling unseen, ignored and underserved.
"Research has shown that healthcare workers can hold implicit racial, cultural, and/or gender biases that affect how they offer care and education to patients," Dr. Abrams explains.
From experiencing micro-aggressions to being racial profiled to witnessing racial violence, exposure to racial trauma can greatly impact psychological health and wellbeing.
"Viewing and witnessing violence of others can also contribute to your own trauma experiences," explains Nicole Cammack, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist. “During times of increased videos and replays of police brutality and injustices based on race, I often advise people to disconnect from social media and news outlets to decrease your exposure, and related stress and anxiety."
Understanding Social Stigma
Many in the African American community associate mental illness with shame and embarrassment — and both the affected individual and the family often hide the diagnosis, according to a National Institutes of Health study. The research also showed 63 percent of Black people believed that a mental health condition was a personal sign of weakness and only 31 percent believed depression was a health problem.
"The 'strong Black woman' narrative also contributes to mental health being taboo. For many, being a strong Black woman is a badge of honor, and unfortunately, the definition is limited in many ways — meaning the more you can endure, the stronger you are", Dr. Cammack says. “Asking for help is seen as a weakness and is negative. We all must stop this narrative and acknowledge the true strength it takes to face your vulnerabilities through therapy."
Improving Mental Health
When on the road to mental wellness, Dr. Abrams advises Black women seek safe, healing spaces and select a culturally competent mental health professional, if possible.
"In general, Black people can take better care of our mental health by acknowledging that it's OK to seek and receive treatment and support those who do seek therapy," Dr. Abrams says.
Counseling centers, university clinics and even some private practices may also offer services at a lower cost or on a sliding scale or an employee assistance program may be able to connect you to the resources you need.
Along with seeking professional help if needed, Dr. Abrams recommends these coping mechanisms:
- Practicing yoga
- Meditating and/or seeking spiritual guidance
- Focusing on your wellness (nutrition, sleep, exercise)
- Positive affirmations and gratitude
- Joining a support group
- Creative expressions (such as dance or art)
- Monitoring your feelings
- Focusing on things that you can control in the moment
- Finding your purpose