This week, May 7-13, was Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) annual Mental Health Week. I have dedicated the month of May to covering topics around mental health and mental wellness. #MentalHealthMay
for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf is popular literature by Ntozake Shange. While I have not read the book yet, I was introduced to her work through the book’s adaptation of the film For Colored Girls, which follows a group of black women from different walks of life facing personal crises, heartbreak, and life’s challenges.
In general, there is a stigma associated with mental health issues in racialized communities, specifically in the black community, that is paramount and detrimental to the well being of individuals. In 2016, two Somali sisters were stabbed to death by their brother in Ottawa, whom, after a psychiatric analysis, was found to be suffering from significant mental health issues and unfit to stand trial. This incident stirred some critical conversation around the cultural stigma of mental health in our communities. Abdul Yussef, a settlement program director at the Somali Centre for Family Services in Ottawa, claimed there is a high level of stigma regarding mental health in the Somali community and called for “professionals who have the quality to respond to the community needs.”
While mental health stigma a reality in the black community as a whole, black women, because of media representation, historical and systemic processes, cultural biases, and so forth, experience heightened stigma when it comes to mental health issues.
Black women, no different when it comes to their susceptibility to mental health conditions, are most likely to be dismissed regarding their concerns and experiences surrounding their mental well-being. Despite the many psychological challenges and struggles black women face, we are most susceptible to internalizing the popular idea that we must be strong, resilient, and remain silent when we experience emotional turmoil. As a result, how we cope with mental health issues are significantly influenced by our position in our communities, and society as a whole.
The strong black woman: A damaging ideological construct
“She wears it like a suit of armor, a badge of courage. While it helps her to remain tenacious against the dual oppressions of racism and sexism, it is also an albatross around her neck.”4
The “strong Black woman” stereotype is a well-documented phenomenon that remains “a constricting burden” for many black women.4 The strong black woman stereotype depicts black women as strong, self-reliant, independent, and nurturing individuals who deny their personal well-being to meet the needs of others.4 Such portrayal of black women, as strong, and resilient individuals, have silenced the emotional trauma and suffering many young black girls and women experience.
Generally, black women tend to be advised to “just pray about it,” and be strong if they express concerns about their mental health issues.2 There is also the issue of lack of knowledge regarding mental health, which leads many to believe that mental health problems are a result of personal weakness, thus, making us reluctant to discuss mental health issues and seek treatment because of the shame and stigma associated with such conditions. 2 In addition, we may have trouble recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, which leads to neglecting the effects and impact of mental health conditions.
What is more troubling is that black women have largely internalized these stereotypes and we perpetuate the idea by allowing ourselves to suffer in silence. The “strong black woman” stereotype is self-perpetuated by black women as a coping strategy that can, in fact, be helpful when applied strategically. After all, black women are one of the most systematically disadvantaged groups in society, and resilience is a necessary armor. However, never having the space to be vulnerable can be very harmful, imposing “a near-impossible burden of expectations on Black women,” that leaves them feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and isolated.4 Unable to express our emotions in positive ways, we are left susceptible to unhealthy coping mechanisms and toxic emotional responses in order to deal with the emotional burden.
The “Strong black woman” stereotype is not unique to African-American women; it can have negative consequences for the health and well-being of black-Canadian women, as well as black women across the globe. For instance, based on their interview with 50 African-heritage women in Nova Scotia, a study4 has revealed the terrible toll the “strong black woman” construct imposes on the health and well-being of black women in Canada. The expectation that they must deny their emotional needs, and take care of their well-being, has been identified as factors for their precarious health.
Empowerment strategies: Individual and systemic approaches
Empowerment an important factor for positive mental health outcomes given the often extremely disempowering psychological effects of mental health problems. Empowerment has both political and psychological components.1Empowerment here is defined as “a process of increasing personal, interpersonal or political power which allows people to take action to improve their life situations” that can take place both on an individual level and group level.1
Individual empowerment can contribute to group empowerment, and an empowered group can enhance the functioning of its individual members.
Individual empowerment is focused on giving individuals the tools and resources to take control over and make decisions about their lives. In doing so, individuals are able to recognize their own abilities to meet their own needs, solve their own problems and utilize the necessary resources to take control of their own lives.5 One example of individual empowerment is teaching young girls concepts related to self-care so they can take care of their emotional and mental well-being. Here is a wonderful list of 35 Self-Care Tips for black women.
Systemic empowerment should encourage structural changes such as those imposed by patriarchy, racism, cultural biases, and socioeconomic factors. There should be interest groups contesting negative perceptions of black women’s mental illness, by exploring new social constructs emphasizing subjective and situational facets of mental health.5 In doing so, we are able to foster empowerment through methods of change on a societal level.
All in all, the unrealistic expectations placed upon black women to always be strong and resilient through life’s many challenges and struggles have negative implications for women’s health—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
The strong black women stereotype is damaging to our women and young girls, thus, it must be critiqued and challenged. The stigma associated with mental illness, as weakness, must be replaced with support, understanding, and encouragement so that black women, especially young black girls, are more likely to seek help when experiencing emotional and mental struggles. Most importantly, we must work collectively to delegitimize social constructs of black women that are damaging to our well-being.
|RESOURCE: OurselvesBlack – A website dedicated to providing relevant, current, and engaging mental health content and stories specifically routed in communities of color, where you will find useful information about mental health promotion and positive coping as well as resources related to mental illness and treatment.|
- Gibbs, Jewelle Taylor, and Diana Fuery. “Mental health and well‐being of black women: Toward strategies of empowerment.” 1994. American Journal of Community Psychology 22(4): 559-582.
- African American Mental Health
- 35 Self-Care Tips
- Etowa, Josephine B., Brenda L. Beagan, Felicia Eghan, and Wanda Thomas Bernard. 2017. “You feel you have to be made of steel”: The strong Black woman, health, and well-being in Nova Scotia.” Health care for women international 38(4): 379-393.
- Masterson, Steve, and Sara Owen. 2006. “Mental health service user’s social and individual empowerment: Using theories of power to elucidate far-reaching strategies.” Journal of mental health 15(1): 19-34.