Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than whites, according to the US HHS Office of Minority Health. We are also more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than white people. And although the statistic that black Americans teenagers are less likely to die from suicide seems encouraging at first, the reality is that black teenagers are actually attempting suicide more often than their white counterparts—the only difference is their suicide attempts are more likely to fail.
Statistics show that it's not just black youth suffering from mental illness. Instead, these issues persist throughout adolescence and adulthood, with black women being one of the most neglected and undertreated demographics in the United States. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin discovered that poverty, parenting, as well as racial and gender discrimination place black women make black women more vulnerable to diseases like major depressive disorder.
Now that we know the unfortunate facts that are black women in America are extremely susceptible to mental illness, it's important to focus on the factors behind this data and dedicate ourselves to doing what we can to fix this epidemic.
Racism, colorism, featurism and texturism affect our self-image and our sense of worth and identity. The media plays a crucial role in the formation of one’s self-esteem and it’s clear that western media is playing a heavy role in crushing the hopes and pride of black women. Those who fit within the media’s standard of beauty are collectively more likely to report higher sense of value in oneself, while those who fall short of the Eurocentric beauty standard (as black women do), find themselves tirelessly working to assimilate to the standard of beauty at their own expense.
The media sends a number of clear messages to black women, from the idea that we are not beautiful enough with our wide features and natural, coily-textured hair, to the idea that we’re strong and invincible and thus, unable to feel pain.
As a result, we have to do better as a collective, to create a media that uplifts and inspires and promotes black women. Platforms like DDS Magazine, CRWN Magazine and more are so important for the self-worth and identity of young black girls who are vulnerable to mainstream society's damaging messages. We must be portrayed as beauty and valued and worthy of respect and adoration, just like any other race of women. Our health depends on it.
Ostracism/Isolation from the Black Community
Black Americans of all ages are more likely to be victims of violent assault and crime than non-Hispanic whites, which increases their chances of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Black Americans are also twice as likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than whites. Researches at Mental Health America discovered that black people in America are more likely to believe depression is a “normal” part of aging. There are also various stigmas in the African-American community that prevent black women from getting help. For one, showing signs of weakness is an indication of falling short of the strong black woman narrative.
Author Melissa Harris-Perry writes in her book “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women In America”: "Through the ideal of the strong black woman, African-American women are subject not only to historically rooted racist and sexist characterizations of black women as a group but also a matrix of unrealistic interracial expectations that construct black women as unshakeable, unassailable and naturally strong."
Thus, it’s vital that we black women begin to fight back against these superhuman standards that society holds us to. We are human, and thus, fallible and imperfect and able to feel pain. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be held to these ridiculous standards of beauty and invincibility. Why should we allow to fall and get back up like everybody else? No, we are not always “strong” and magical. And that’s perfectly okay.
According to Erica Richards, medical director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Sibley Memorial Hostpital, “There’s a feeling in a lot of black communities that women have to be strong and stoic,” Richards explains. “Women are so busy taking care of everyone else — their partners, their elderly parents and their children — they don’t take care of themselves. However, women should be reminded that attending to their own needs, whether physical or emotional, doesn’t make you weak. It makes you better able to care for your loved ones in the long run.”
Access to Mental Health Support
As a black woman, it may often feel like there’s nobody looking out for you. While your white friends with mental illness have a wealth of white counsellors and psychologists who relate to the white experience, it’s much harder to find black mental health professionals. In fact, black women make up less than 5% of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, in the United States. In this case, what is there to do? One possible solution is to focus on finding a professional who is open-minded and able to listen to and empathize with the black female experience.
In 2011, 54.3 percent of adult black Americans received treatment during a major depressive episode, compared to 73.1 percent of adult white people living in America. Although black women experience higher rates of depression than white females or black males, we rarely receive adequate treatment, due to lack of health insurance and the shame and ostracism that comes from admitting that we need help.
All in all, if you’re experiencing mental health problems, don’t just rely on your religion, family, friends, neighbors and coworkers. All of these things may assist you alongside your treatment, but they are unlikely to give you all the help you need. Seek treatment from a professional who will give you the tools to deal with everyday life and help you see the world through a positive lens again. Don’t refuse help. You are worth it.
If you're experiencing any of the signs mentioned below, please consider reaching out to a doctor or psychologist:
- difficulties concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
- excessive fatigue
- feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and/or guilt
- excessive sleeping or insomnia
- lack of appetite or eating too much
- irritability and quickness to anger
- loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities (also known as anhedonia)
Grace is a freelance writer and blogger from Canada. Her work has been featured on HerCampus, 21Ninety, Read Unwritten. She is a voracious reader, a dog-lover and a self-professed pop culture junkie. Her other hobbies include watching sappy romantic comedies, consuming too many strawberry-filled doughnuts and people-watching. Grace currently attends university, where she is working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Pre-Law.