Many of us wake up early, get the kids ready for school, then head to work where we spend eight hours being the lesser paid (but equally intelligent) wing woman to a coworker (who is likely white, male or both). During lunch, the bestie calls to catch up on life and vent. After work, we come home to wait hand and foot on bae while making sure the kids are finishing their homework. While preparing dinner, we throw in that last load of laundry. By the time dinner is ready, it’s too late to go to the gym, so we feed ourselves with a laxative tea and sleep with a waist-cincher. After all, we’ve got to keep it right and tight for the viewing pleasure of others.
As black women, we do it all.
We are loving daughters, nurturing mothers, supportive partners, successful businesswomen, determined students and innovative entrepreneurs. But once we get home and the cape comes off, what happens to the burdens that are left for us to bear? Who is there to pick up our pieces when the madness of the world leaves us depleted of energy and hope? Finally, why are we afraid to admit when something just doesn’t feel right?
The stigma of a black woman being typecast as a certain character doesn’t have to be accurate. The truth is, many of the circumstances that cause us to neglect our mental health are because of systems put in place that never intended to assist us in the first place. Although addressing the stereotypes alone certainly will not cure any conditions, it's a necessary first step in figuring out the "why."
The stereotypes behind the stigma
Dating back to U.S. slavery, each plantation had Mammy: The black woman convinced that everyone else’s well-being mattered more than hers. The matriarch who suppresses her dreams to assist in fulfilling those of others around her, Mammy thrives on being the most obedient yet solid rock of a servant as possible. When it comes down to it, she’s clutch and people praise her for it. Behind closed doors however, her spirit is as equally worn out as her hands and feet. A tired life of failing to practice self-care causes her to become numb to her own desires.
Another popular stereotype within the black community is the Jezebel: Someone with an unhealthy appetite for lust and sex. As a child, perhaps, she was badly mistreated and abandoned by the paternal figure in her life. Because of this, she builds a mental wall as protection from any future chance of heartbreak. This complex leads her down an exhausting life path of finding love in all the wrong places. She has adapted to enduring mental — and sometimes physical — abuse from her partners. Over time, her sense of self-worth and purpose completely exit her soul.
Then there’s the modern day Sapphire: A black woman who wears a chip on her shoulder. She has a tendency of spewing hatred and bitterness, especially in relationships. She enjoys using aggression to bully and emasculate. She is deemed the ‘angry black woman’ to society. At home, she hates the person she has become, although she feels she has no control of her emotions.
While Hollywood chooses to tell one side of the story of the black woman, it rarely considers the state of her mental health.
Anxiety, mood, psychotic, eating, impulse control, personality, obsessive-compulsive and post-traumatic stress disorders impact millions of women in the black community. Scientific data wants us to believe that the mental health conversation is an all-encompassing umbrella that shouldn’t be race-specific due to a lack in evidence, when in fact, race might actually be the biggest factor. According to Mental Health America, 6.8 million African Americans have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and the number among black women in the U.S. is probably much greater than reported. The social stigma surrounding our community might turn some away from seeking the proper help. We are so used to displaying unwavering strength to the public that we only further separate ourselves from the idea of wholeness we strive to maintain.
Since childhood, we learn to consistently internalize certain feelings for the sake of those around us. We grew up watching the maternal figures in our family braving any and every potentially meltdown-worthy situation, from finances to illnesses. The cycle has continued and needs to stop. We don’t have to be defined by the stereotypes; it's possible to break through to the other side and achieve total peace of mind. By first acknowledging the stereotypes behind the stigma, we can begin an open dialogue. And from that point, we can choose to overcome our fears of weakness or vulnerability.