For decades, mental health was not discussed among African Americans. Therapy was viewed as a luxury that white people (especially white women) could afford. Many envisioned the therapist’s office as a place where people who don’t look like us go to complain about their stressors while black women, who are disproportionately discriminated against, assaulted, and depressed, were expected to push through, pray instead, and never admit weakness.
I love that there has been more conversation about mental health in the African American community. It’s encouraging to see reality stars engaging in therapy on TV, to read celebrities personal accounts of taking care of their mental health, and to have so many people of color showing up to our offices to finally use the benefits provided by their employers.
That’s the bright and sunny side. On the other side, according to a study done by the University of Toledo, there has been a 182 percent increase in suicide completions by African-American women from 2001-2017. Black women have historically had 1 of the lowest rates of suicide. We are earning more college degrees, opening more business, and making more money. We are also, apparently, failing to manage our mental health.
We continue to push this view of the “black superwoman” and “Black Girl Magic.” In the black community, many families are headed by a “Strong black woman” who is often very devoted to her family. We are special, we are magnificent…We are human, though. This insistence on assuming the role of the superhuman savior for everyone and all of this responsibility can be extremely stressful. We, as black women must to better to manage our mental health. There is no one-size-fits all for managing mental health but there are a few steps that have proven to help.
1.Address shame and guilt concerning needing help: We need to give our sisters permission to take care of their personal needs, including mental health needs.
2.Ask for help: I know that feeling of not wanting to bother anyone or even admit that I can’t do everything by myself. There are likely people who are willing to assist you and some of them want you to ask so that they can feel comfortable asking you in the future. We can all help each other!
3.Exercise: We have all heard about the physical benefits of exercise. Exercise is also proven to reduce mild to moderate depression and anxiety as well as reduce the symptoms of ADHD. Exercise has been described as the most under-utilized antidepressants.
4.See a therapist: What doesn’t kill you, very rarely makes you stronger. I often wonder where that statement even comes from. Situations that almost kill you, more commonly contribute to mental health issues and trauma responses. Having friends to talk to is great but mental health therapists are trained to help you move forward. Their non-biased approach and obligation to keep your secrets is pretty helpful as well.
5.Don’t be afraid to try medication: Some people find that they need psychotropic medication to manage their mental health temporarily while they learn some new coping skills or adjust to new situations. Others find that long-term or lifelong use is beneficial. Either way, using medication to manage mental health is nothing to be ashamed of.
For centuries, black women have been told to “Take it to the Lord” when they struggle with their mental health. What we can now define as anxiety and depression were once described as a lack of faith in the black community. Panic attacks were called “Nervous break-downs.” As we continue to grow and thrive as a group and continue to be more cognizant of our mental health, we can accept that people can take their problems to whomever they identify as their higher powers and get additional support from others as well.
Asha Dickerson, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, CPCS
ADvantage Counseling and Education Services, LLC