Several years ago, I wrote a few essays on the Black Superwoman myth and my own experiences with mental illness. They were inspired by a news item about Fantasia Barrino allegedly attempting suicide and how Black Twitter thought she was weak, or faking something, or an otherwise unworthy woman. Since then, much has been written about the Black Superwoman myth and why we don’t get help for our mental health issues. I, personally, have paid a good deal of lip service to the topic. If everyone seems to be writing about the problem, why then are we still suffering?
If you’re not familiar with the Black Superwoman myth, Google it. Most of us here know what it is because we live it everyday. In response to the rest of the world who wants to put us down, we build ourselves up to be super-competent, hyper-awesome women, able to leap tall boardrooms and piles of children with a single bound. We do more, do it better, and do it longer than anyone else. Help? No, we don’t need it; we can do it ourselves. Self-esteem? Yes, we’ve got it in spades. Yet, we don’t take care of ourselves because taking time off makes you weak.
But a lot of us are feeling weak and are in need of help. A 2015 study of Black women’s mental health found that 40% of us have experienced the signs of a mood disorder — including depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance abuse. That’s a staggering number in a period in time when life is supposed to have gotten “better” for Black women, you know being the most educated group in the U.S. and the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs and all. And that’s a lot of suffering while trying to appear that we have everything under control.
I’ve seen these trends at work with my friends and family. Most of the Black women I know have experienced some kind of mental health crisis during the course of their lives. About 25% of them have a lasting mental illness; 25% of them have sought help; the rest of them have either ignored the symptoms or mentioned their problems to a physician rather than a mental health clinician. I’ve seen women suffer for years, barely able to work, isolating themselves from friends and family for years. These are educated women who’ve read the books and seen the blog posts but still choose to suffer in silence. What’s the missing link?
Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness recommend increasing the number of Black mental health providers. While it may not reduce the power of the Black Superwoman myth, it will at least make the mental health field seem more trustworthy and accessible in the eyes of Black people, which may get more of us in the door and onto the couch.
Of course, the real game changer will be for Black women to realize we’re fallible, changeable humans who don’t need to “represent” for anyone but ourselves. In all honesty, therapy could help us do just that.
I really don’t have the solutions to the problems of Black women’s mental health. Like everyone else, I can only hope to write about it every few years and, just maybe, reach one more woman who is in pain.
Tracey Lloyd lives in Harlem, where she fights her cat for access to the keyboard. You can find more of her experiences living with bipolar disorder on her personal blog, My Polar Opposite.