The Burden of Depression Among African-American Women
by Rick Wallace, Ph.D., Psy.D. | June 26, 2018
I am certain that you have heard the term “strong Black woman” at some point and time. Most of us have heard it repeatedly — to the point that many of us buy into the false bravado and fallacies associated with it. I am not suggesting that Black women are not exceptional, because they are. I am not saying that Black women have not endured more than any other group of women on the planet. What I am saying is that all of this has come at a very steep price. A large percentage of African-American women are suffering at unimaginable levels, and most of this suffering happens in silence.
When I say that this suffering happens in silence, I am speaking of the cultural proclivity of Black women to internalize their struggles while pretending that they are alright. One force that imposes itself on Black women at an astronomical rate is depression. Depression is a major problem in the Black community. While Black women are among the groups most likely to admit or report bouts with depression, they are least likely to seek help — a reality that must change.
The fact that mental health carries such a dark stigma in the Black community drives Black women to keep their suffering and sadness to themselves. Depression is very common, and everyone experiences it at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, some people are not able to shake free from their encounter with depression. Black women have borne the burden of being strong for centuries. During slavery, it was necessary to hold it together despite the threat of having her mate and children taken away without warning or recourse.
How long have Black women been expected to perform and not speak? They have had to constantly produce while lacking the proper platform to exercise their voice. The struggle in multigenerational. What we have now are women who have been told by their mothers whose mothers told them to suppress whatever they were feeling. Black women have historically been told to be quiet, get up, chalk it up, put on your game face, and go out and perform.
Our voice — the ability to speak concerning our discontent — is a part of our mechanism of sanity. When we internalize discontent, the emotions become toxic, and they begin to eat away at us from the inside out. Empirical and pragmatic evidence supports the notion that women, regardless of race and ethnicity, are affected by depression at almost double the rate, and Black women experience depression at a higher rate than other racial groups.
While pretending to unimpacted by the vicissitudes and hardships of life may present a proper and appropriate image, it does not eliminate the impact of those hardships. To share hardships and to be encouraged amid them is a part of coping and sustaining oneself. Because Black women have been convinced that they have to maintain the “strong Black woman” persona, they bypass necessary help and aid.
I am not making an argument against the strength of the Black woman, which is unparalleled, but I am asserting that their strength does not make them unbreakable and indestructible. We love to speak of Black girl magic as if it is the cure all or healing balm for everything that ails the Black collective. But, who is healing the Black woman? Who is propping her up and standing beside her?
Studies reveal that as much as 60 percent of Black women report experiencing sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. Much of this reported abuse comes at the hands of a male relative who they should have been able to trust to protect them. To exacerbate the matter, many of these young girls are then told to keep the family secret as not to embarrass the family or get the male relative in trouble. Even worse, many of these families are seeking the counsel of clergymen who are advising them to keep the secret locked away. It appears that everyone is protected except the victim, but she must learn how to fane strength while remaining silent.
Far to much weight has been placed on the back of our women. The load that we are demanding that they carry has dire consequences.
Not only are Black women not receiving the health care support they need to confront depression, but those who are receiving care are not receiving adequate care. The mental stability of our women must become a priority. This is not a time for finger-pointing, but the engagement of accountability.
To all of my Black sisters who are out there, it is immensely important that you find someone you can talk to when the pressure becomes too great. You cannot hide under your “strong woman” cloak and experience the healing that is so necessary for your life. Fulfillment starts with you and your wholeness. While depression can be an overwhelming force, it is treatable, and you can overcome it. However, you don’t overcome depression by pretending that it does not exist. You overcome it by confronting it at the source. Take time to exhale. Get professional help and monitor your stressor and depressive ideations (thoughts that lead to sadness).
Black men, we must be willing to assume some of the load. In many instances, it will not be easy, because our women have carried so much for so long they will not easily relinquish it. You will need to be patient and consistent in your efforts. You will need to be understanding when it comes to their behavior and response to your efforts. We have to be present, especially in those frustrating moments in which they are dealing with dark thoughts, depression and anxiety.
I have said this on more than one occasion; we will only get as far as our men can physically lead us and as high as our women can spiritually elevate us. We must learn to be safe havens for one another. ~ Rick Wallace, Ph.D.
Dr. Rick Wallace is the Founder & CEO of The Visionetics Institute and the author of 20 books that include Born in Captivity: Psychopathology as a Legacy of Slavery and Critical Mass: The Phenomenon of Next-Level Living. He is a leading contributor to the development of solutions that will lead to the elevation and empowerment of the Black collective.