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The Mental Health Cost of Being a Black Woman In America

Despite being faced with a seemingly insurmountable mental load, Black women are using their voices to take back control over their wellbeing and reclaim their mental health.

You've likely heard the phrase "strong Black woman." It's often been used as an ode to the power and resiliency of Black women. But how did they gain this title? As a Black woman, I'd say that perhaps it's because we've historically had to face unprecedented hurdles and burdens, and on the surface, we've done it with poise and grace, leaving others marveling at our abilities to "do it all." 

Despite appearing to keep it all together, playing this role as an immobile pillar of strength — coupled with the difficulties that continue to plague the Black community today — has a very real impact on our mental health.  And while it may feel intuitive to maintain an appearance of strength in the face of so much hardship as a means of survival, embracing the "strong Black woman" schema can lead to increased levels of depression, anxiety symptoms, and loneliness

Only about 2% of psychiatrists and 4% of psychologists are black
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Words to Know

Cultural competence: the ability to understand, appreciate, and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one's own.

Epigenetics: the study of how behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way genes are expressed in an individual as well as potentially their offspring.

Intersectionality: the interconnected nature of social categories such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group; often used as a lens for seeing the way in which forms of inequality can operate together and exacerbate one another.

Microaggression: originally used to describe the insults and dismissals of Black Americans; now refers to the daily, casual, and often unintentionally harmful and hurtful comments that all marginalized people experience from people in positions of privilege. 

Privilege: certain societal advantages possessed by an individual by virtue of their race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, education, body size, among other factors.

Somatization: when psychological concerns (e.g. depression or anxiety) manifest as physical symptoms (e.g. stomach pains, nausea).

Black women have always been advocating for themselves and for others. From slavery to the wage gap to attempting to measure up to Eurocentric standards of beauty, there's still so much intergenerational trauma that has yet to be explored. In many ways, this trauma has left Black women feeling like we are the lowest class of citizens in the United States. Malcolm X spoke of this in a 1962 speech delivered in L.A., stating, "the most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman."

If your ancestors went through a traumatic experience, chances are it left a mark on you as well.

Credit: Getty Images - Illustration: Noa Denmon
Credit: Getty Images - Illustration: Noa Denmon
Credit: Getty Images - Illustration: Noa Denmon

A deep-rooted survival mindset may say otherwise, but there is no reason to suffer in silence.

Credit: Getty Images - Illustration: Noa Denmon

In our workplaces, we're often faced with the "angry Black woman" trope, and the plight of daily microaggressions, from subtle comments such as "you're so articulate" to more serious offenses such as having coworkers touch our hair or being passed up for promotion or mentorship opportunities. And yet, we're often forced to put these jabs aside and, in doing so, swallow our pride to continue advancing our careers. In addition to doing our jobs well, we have to downplay our feelings and be careful not to display any outrage or discontent for fear of how our actions may be misconstrued. This, all while making 63 cents to the dollar compared to our white male counterparts, and 78 cents to the dollar compared to our white female colleagues.

Black women who endorse the view that they need to be a "Strong Black Woman" reported receiving less emotional support from friend and family, while reporting higher levels of psychological distress
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

In 2017, the Center for American Progress reported that more than 84 percent of Black mothers were the primary, sole, or co-breadwinners for their families, compared to 62 percent for white mothers and 60 percent for Latina mothers. Black women have a major impact on the financial health of their families, as well as the Black community in general. Thus, during the height of COVID-19, when Black women had some of the highest unemployment rates in the country at nearly 10 percent, not only was our physical health at risk but also our economic health.

From disproportionate death rates to widespread job loss and the weight of carrying on through it all, Black women in America have been dealt a unique blow from the coronavirus pandemic.

Credit: Getty Images - Illustration: Noa Denmon

Being responsible for the family finances is a heavy load to carry, and the impact is even greater for Black women.

Credit: Getty Images - Illustration: Noa Denmon

For Black women, a moving body is a political act. Here's how they've long used the power and magic of dance to break free from a difficult reality.

Credit: Getty Images - Illustration: Noa Denmon

All of these realities have the potential to negatively affect our mental health. But reaching out for help can frequently feel incredibly challenging and intimidating due in part to the continued stigmas around mental health within the Black community. While anyone can struggle with mental health regardless of race and gender, women are at least twice as likely to experience an episode of major depression as men, and compared to white women, Black women are only half as likely to seek help. When we consider that only about 2 percent of practicing psychiatrists and 4 percent of psychologists are Black, finding a culturally competent therapist can be yet another barrier to access and receiving adequate care. At the intersection of both racism and sexism, Black women face a unique set of circumstances. It's time to take a look at the heavy load that Black women are carrying and how they're coping (or struggling to) with their circumstances, along with the beauty  — the joy, the resilience, and the pride — that they've managed to craft and nurture along the way.