Mental health struggles are often wrongly viewed to be a sign of weakness. This stigma affects black women specifically because being a black woman with mental health issues is seen as an antithesis to the ‘strong black woman’ trope. In the eyes of society, this contradiction is too confusing to grapple with, therefore a black woman with mental health difficulties can’t exist. This erasure is damaging - it creates the belief that mental health is a ‘white’ problem.
Growing up I fell victim to this view and had to maintain a ‘performance’ of ‘the strong, black woman’. When I would break down, it felt as if people were confused as to why I was ‘acting’ this way. My mental health was seen as the ‘white problem’ I was struggling with because it was out of character with the stereotype of the ‘strong black girl’ I was expected to be. The stereotype does not serve black women - it forces a behaviour on us that can prevent us from seeking help. I’d mask what I was going through, and this led to deep isolation and frustration because I was annoyed at myself for needing help. This was an admission that I wasn’t ‘strong’ even though it was not the case. Black girls aren’t afforded the same empathy as their white peers and this needs to change.
It seemed like at every turn I was reminded that mental health problems and blackness run parallel to each other. The church, culture, media, even the medical institutions uphold this view. Admission of mental health struggles was seen as some sort of blasphemy in the church. African parents believed that saying the words ‘I am depressed’ was sealing your fate, or an excuse for laziness or ungratefulness, while actually it is the first step in getting help: acknowledging the problem. Not validating black girl’s voices is dangerous because it limits the places young, black girls can turn to for help. African parents can sometimes be so inert to learning about new things like mental health because they have grown up in such a different generation. We must encourage discourse between people with different experiences to help create empathy for black girls.
Pre-professional help, most of my mental health advice came from the internet. I grew up on the internet - it was like my second parent, but nowhere do I recall learning that black women struggle with mental health too. I still wasn't seeing a lot of black girls and women talking about mental health either. However, it’s amazing to see the progress made. The era of ‘just girly things’ posts has turned into meaningful, nuanced infographics. Some of my favourite accounts on the topic are @celutionsuk and @therapyforblackgirls (which also has an amazing podcast). Of course Instagram is not a substitute for therapy but the social media discourse gives me hope for the younger generation of black girls on the internet.
We must open our eyes to the variety of people that struggle with mental health. Representation in the media, hospitals, schools, churches, is so important in helping to debunk myths like ‘black women don’t go through mental health struggles.’ I think these stereotypes and stigmas can subconsciously make racialised people be in denial of mental health struggle; preventing them from reaching out for help due to shame and guilt. For the longest time, I was like that guy with the flex seal tape slapping it onto a leak in my brain as a futile attempt to stop my mental health struggles from pouring onto every aspect of my life. I wish I reached out earlier. It was not until I had left school that I sought professional help. It is important for people, especially for black women, to feel safe to acknowledge they are struggling with mental health. Black women have had to constantly live in a box prescribed to them by society at the cost of their own health. I had so deeply internalised these mental health stigmas that I refused to believe that I could be struggling.
Everyone has mental health, including black women. Moments of weakness and strength wax and wane and when you are in either phase it doesn’t make you a failure. You are learning about yourself every day, for a lifetime and it is important we normalise this. We need to validate all kinds of mental health struggles and accommodate them. We need to listen empathetically to black women; encourage growth and learning and collaboration over independence and innate strength because no one should have to struggle by themself. We need to look at the intersections of race, class, gender, disability, place, age etc., to destigmatise mental health and help people who aren't often represented as suffering.
Written by Fisola Kelly-Akinnuoye