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MIND

Why we need to talk about black women and mental health

Black women are missing from the mental-health narrative and society’s unfair stereotypes are to blame, says Tobi Oredein 

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By Tobi Oredein on

Everybody has those days where they feel like breaking down at work. Where it feels like nothing is going right and the majority of your team is conspiring against you to make sure nothing goes your way. And for some, these terrible days at the office are few and far between, and for others, these days seem to happen far too frequently. Unfortunately, in my last job these terrible days seemed to happen on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, but not Friday, as I usually worked from home. 

Feeling isolated by co-workers, and deeply unhappy about how I was treated at work, the emotional toll of these feelings started seeping its way into other parts of my life and changed how I felt about myself. The random outburst of tears in the toilets and the anxiety of waking up on Monday morning almost became too much to bear, but I felt like I had no choice but to carry on, as I refused to admit that my work life was having a negative impact on my mental health.

Yet it seems that I was not alone in my reluctance to seek self-care and address my emotional and mental wellbeing, as people from black and ethnic minorities groups are more likely to not seek help from mainstream mental-health services. The hostile relationship between the black community and mental health doesn’t just end there – the Mental Health Foundation states that people from black and ethnic minority groups are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental-health problem

The angry black women stereotype works in partnership with the strong black woman stereotype to completely silence black women in the mental-health narrative

And a 2013 report published by mental-health charity Mind stated that over 60 per cent of inpatients from mixed white and black, African, Caribbean or any other black background were subject to detention under the Mental Health Act, compared with 40 per cent of white British and Irish inpatients. 

And while these statistics speak to both black men and women, trauma and intercultural psychotherapist Dawn Estefan believes that black women are more at risk from suffering with mental-health problems. 

“In my personal opinion, black women are more likely to suffer from mental-health problems and this is due, in part, to a culture of stigmatisation or, more simply put, perception,” she tells me. 

“The issue of perception or stereotyping has been, and is, a powerful intersecting factor affecting black women’s mental health, as black women are often perceived as hyper-sexualised, ugly, exotic, scary and inadequate.”

By constantly battling not to be seen as the angry black woman, especially in professional settings, black women can be prevented from speaking out against unfair treatment in the workplace like misogynynoir (a type of discrimination that draws on the intersect of racism and sexism, and specifically targets black women). As black women, we have to stressfully and skilfully manoeuvre our way through this double oppression, as well as the emotional weight of feeling that our inability to express our pain is a lethal factor in hindering our state of mind. 

And the angry black women stereotype works in partnership with the strong black woman stereotype to completely silence black women in the mental-health narrative. Black women are taught that, due to our race and gender, we have to be twice as good as our white counterparts in order to succeed. We’re taught that discrimination is some unfortunate right of passage that we should take on the chin in order to prosper in society. So, when I encountered discrimination, I felt that I had no choice but to be held prisoner by my potential mental-health issues in a bid to echo the strength of black women before me who had managed to overcome bigger challenges of adversity. 

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Yet it’s not just stereotypes that can have a devastating effect on our mind – quality of life plays a huge part in our mental health, with black people, alongside other ethnic groups, facing greater barriers to employment, which means they are more likely to be in poverty. In 2015, a study showed that, among black people aged 16-24, long-term unemployment had risen by 50 per cent since 2010. If black people are less likely to be employed, then they are more likely to have money worries and tighter financial budgets that prevent them from having a disposable income to spend on recreational activities and social events that help us de-stress from life’s burdens.

Thankfully, mental-health conversations have come to the fore in recent years, and that is in part thanks to influential figures speaking out and trying to de-stigmatise the image of mental-health sufferers. Yet we need to remember which people are included in the conversation and which voices are the loudest. 

In the black community, the phrase “Black don’t crack” is often used to celebrate the youthful physical appearance of black women, yet the problem is that, internally, black women do crack – it’s just that society doesn’t see us crack, and that’s partly because we won’t acknowledge they exist.

@iamtobioredein

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Mental Health
women of colour
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