Shanti Das, founder of Silence the Shame, a mental health education and awareness non-profit organization, shares how her wellness trainings, compelling content and outreach, aim to address shame, eliminate the stigma and provide support for mental wellbeing around menstruation and menopause for Black women.
In October, Shanti moderated a virtual community conversation about how hormones can affect a woman’s emotions and moods in different ways throughout her lifetime. Silence the Shame invited four panelists to speak to the intersection of mental and reproductive health, including Dr. Adrienne H. Berry, a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist that works to support women through the many stages of life, including menopause.
MADAMENOIRE had the pleasure of speaking with both Shanti Das and Dr. Adrienne to discuss the stigma, struggles and the importance of intergeneration storytelling with other Black women through their reproductive and mental health journeys. These are the conversations that are being prioritized by Lincoln Listens First.
MADAMENOIRE: Medical racism and racial bias contribute to the maternal mortality crisis. In what ways do you see menstruation and menopause impacting women of color in ways that don’t effect our white counterparts?
Shanti Das: It requires you to look at other issues and disparities. Lack of insurance, lack of resources and access to health care that we just don’t have in the same ways. When you talk about menstruation and menopause, and how we care for ourselves and our bodies, we just don’t have the same access and it makes it difficult for us.
Dr. Adrienne : Part of what goes on in the black community with regards to mental wellness deals with access, but I think the biggest part is still grounded in the thought process. It is grounded and black folk are raised to keep secrets. So the thought of going and sitting on a stranger’s couch and having conversations is not something that is comfortable to us versus our white counterparts.
Our white counterparts are more comfortable with the concept of therapy because it is introduced to them at a different point than it is for us. I will get “Julie” who will call me and ask “Can you see little three-year-old Bobby” and for a lot of them, they use it as prevention, whereas most black people are using it when they are in crisis.
I think because of that, a lot of times, we’re just still not comfortable and the stigma that is associated with the word mental health is something that still scares Black people. Which is why a lot of times I use the term mental wellness. I’m a resourse that you can come to when you’re in crisis. But if you come when you’re not, we have a better chance of helping you evolve to where it is you see yourself going.
MADAMENOIRE: Depression and anxiety in women of color is often passed off as the Super Woman mentality, part of that is because of the stigma. But the other part is because of pop culture and the ways that black women are portrayed. So as Black women and women of color destigmatize their mental health even more and start speaking more about it, what ways can they cope when they’re overwhelmed by the symptoms of their mental state and their reproductive and sexual health?
Shanti Das: For me, coping is really being intentional about what I do from a self care and wellness perspective. If I do have a cycle, at this point every three or four months, I’m making sure that I’m taking hot baths, exercising, getting outside for some sun on my face or drinking some tea because I know that might make me feel better.
I try pouring into myself and being really unapologetic and intentional about it. Often as Black women, we’re putting ourselves last. Thankfully there is a shift and that’s changing. I think it’s really important and transformative for us as Black women to take time to pour back into ourselves, especially during those weeks throughout the month, when we know it’s going to add a lot of extra stress in our lives.
Dr. Adrienne: It has to start with us educating and advocating for ourselves because you can’t advocate for what you don’t understand. Especially understanding the difference between what you did when you were [younger].
Back then red wine and chocolate was the go to, but both contain Caffeine which can exacerbate the symptoms. And we have to be educated enough so that we can make empowered decisions about how we care for ourselves.
MADAMENOIRE: How can Black women feel empowered around these conditions, these symptoms and approaching their mental health?
Shanti Das: Storytelling, we must be able to share what’s going on with our bodies. My girlfriends and I have a group text, and we talk about everything from their children, to sports, to dating to our cycles. We have to have those small pockets of community conversations, if you will, amongst our peers, amongst our family members and it allows us to share the information because you don’t know what you don’t know.
Find those people who you trust in your smallest circles and let’s talk about more than surface area issues. We have got to have these real, authentic conversations, and really empower our community to uplift one another, and really to educate one another about, about our bodies, as black women. We must be able to share our experiences with one another, and best practices.
Dr. Adrienne: We must normalize the norm. Everything that we’re going through is normal, but for so long, we’ve been taught that there is something secretive about. Talking about things that are normal, sex, love and developmental stages of our bodies and is normal conversation. We just got to normalize them which will do the part to silence the shame.
MADAMENOIRE: The importance of storytelling and combating the silence. One—what does it look like? Because I think what y’all did in that webinar was very intentional. What does it look like to curate a space for safe storytelling around mental health and menopause? And why is it so important?
Shanti Das: Silence the Shame is definitely committed to curating more stories about women and maternal health, our cycles and the changes that our bodies go through because it all plays a part into our mental and physical wellness.
It’s up to us to really be intentional about the type of conversations we have, and to have multi-generational conversations. We must make sure we’re not only having this conversation with the younger generation, but also with the grandmothers and other Black women in the family who play a role in their upbringing. It should always be the collective community that we’re sharing and holding space with.
Dr. Adrienne: I agree. You know, the reason why we don’t have so many conversations is because we’re not comfortable and we have to make sure that we are evolving, as the world is evolving. We can’t continue to do the same things that we have always done, and if we don’t open up or give people a platform to feel comfortable talking about something that is uncomfortable, we will never progress. We’ll just be stuck in the same place.
MADAMENOIRE: What advice do you offer Black woman currently working with a therapist; what goals and expectations should they have?
Dr. Adrienne: Think about when you are going and you’re trying to look for a pair of shoes to go with this bomb dress. You might not find the best fit the first time, or it may not look right with the dress. So you might try on two or three different pairs, be patient because it might take a few attempts to find the best fit.
But one of the things that I always recommend is that people ask is whether or not their therapist has a therapist, because we absorb a lot of other people’s information, therefore, you want your therapists to be working through their own junk, because life continues to happen to us too. We are all always being and becoming, and this applies to everyone.
Honestly, you should be going to a therapist, every year or every other year. Again, it’s prevention, so that you don’t always have to be in a crisis when you are going. You need to have an idea of what it is that you are looking for from that relationship with a therapist. Identify what their style is in terms of how they approach the therapeutic process, and what their philosophical beliefs are.
Shanti Das: I echo what Dr. Adrienne said, for me, even just in terms of some of the other things that I had to unpack with my therapists beyond the issue of menopause, it took me several times. Also, I did go to several therapists that didn’t look like me, in terms of, you know, nationality and gender, and it was cool, but I didn’t feel like it was moving the needle. It wasn’t making me necessarily worse, but it wasn’t doing anything to help my problems either.
Therapists truly help provide coping mechanisms, but you must do the work. You ultimately are the one who must do the work. But it helps to have someone who understands you, and especially those cultural nuances certainly come into play. So when you do start talking about reproductive health, as black women and maternal mental health, I think it would be good trying to find a therapist that looks like you so that they can understand you know, what you’ve gone through or what your what your body goes through.
MADAMENOIRE: When you reflect on menstruation and menopause as Black women, what was the moment that you were first able to identify that your mental health was being influenced by stages of your reproductive health?
Shanti Das: It’s funny, because when I was younger, and I first got my cycle, I started learning about how it would affect your mood, but back then I didn’t necessarily equate it to mental health. I know that sounds silly, but mental health wasn’t talked about 50 years ago. The only explanation offered was just that your cycle would make you moody, and you’re gonna cramp. So it really took me to be in my 40s, once I reflected on the beginning of my cycle, it made sense that it actually was all about my mental health and wellness.
Before we were not having those conversations, particularly in black families,especially from a health and wellness perspective. Everything that I experienced during that one week had an adverse effect, I turned into “Evalina”, and I was the one that got the horrible cramps, but it took me to get older when I really understood the narrative around mental health.
Dr. Adrienne: I remember when my daughter actually got her cycle, trying to figure out how to be empathetic with her because she was experiencing things that I had never experienced. I did not have the moodiness and that sort of thing. Or if I was having it, I didn’t realize I was having it because nobody had the discussion about it in terms of these are possibly symptoms that you would have.
Even now, it’s still not being talked about from the perspective of mental health and mental wellness. We have to do a better job about how we discuss hormonal changes in women, there are plenty of discussions about the physical symptoms of these cycles. People explain how you are going to pass blood and the happenings of the uterus. But it’s still not being talked about from the perspective of how it impacts your emotions and feelings.
MADAMENOIRE: Dr. Adrienne, what role do you feel sex education plays in informing Black youth about these things, specifically, the menstruation, and even menopause?
Shanti Das: My sex education classes were really a joke. Though, I do feel like we should be taught that in school, it is left up to the community and the family members to have to teach their children. I don’t have a lot of faith in some of the school systems and the curriculums or the way that things are taught.
So I really feel like it’s incumbent upon parents, you know, to really talk to their girls. These emotional roller coasters that young girls are going through, it’s gonna have to start within the home. We can’t just leave it up to school to teach our babies about something that serious. Which means we have to really play out this narrative within the black family to really teach our young girls at an early age how it’s going to affect them both mentally and physically.
Dr. Adrienne: I do think there has to be a healthy marriage between what is taught through sex education, and what is taught at home. A lot of times parents don’t feel comfortable having the conversations because nobody had it with them.
When people are not comfortable, because they don’t have the skills because it wasn’t given to them, they don’t really know how to have the conversation. But we still have a generation of kids who are out here now googling it, and still having conversations with their peers, because children have always put a lot of faith in what their peers told them, they at a certain developmental stage, they trust their peers more than they do their parents.
MADAMENOIRE: Generational stories and lessons from our elders play a strong role in how we as Black women understand our sexual and reproductive health. How our elders, how our mothers, our grandmothers, our aunties experienced it. How does that play a role in the stigma and the silence and how we experience it?
Dr. Adrienne: I definitely think that everybody is going to have conversations based on their experiences, but number two, based on their own circumstances. So for people who don’t have access to those who have the information, who have DNA that looks like me, then who do I turn to?
Also, remember that different generations are going to operate differently. There were just certain things we didn’t talk about my great-grandmother. She had 13 children; some birthed into her 40s; she was born into slavery and lived to be 108. So I was the fourth generation and by the time I was going through my cycles, none of those people, my mom, my grandma, or my great grandmother, were of the generation that was going to sit you down and have these conversations.
How do we make sure that we are passing on information that is related to our genetic makeup so that we can know what it is that we can anticipate? Somehow, we have to figure out how to bridge this gap.