In high school, Nia Wromas became depressed because of an emotionally abusive relationship. She tried to open up to her parents, but they couldn’t seem to hear her. They’d dismissively say she was just “sad,” and blame it on other factors, even going as far as to say, “You wouldn’t be depressed if you’d clean your room.”
Wromas says that, back then, she often felt like her parents thought she was just “being selfish or a brat.” She remembers thinking at the time, I wish they would understand. I’m depressed and I just want you to be there. Today, at 23, she still gets the impression that her parents have an idea about who she is that doesn’t line up with her actual identity. “I don’t know why my parents say, ‘Oh that’s not you,’” Wromas says. “What version are you talking about? Because I've never seen it. This is the only version; this is as good as it’s going to get.”
Madeline Smith remembers her father telling her, “Don’t do that, don’t cry,” when she was grieving the loss of her grandmother in sixth grade. That same year, she tried to kill herself at school. Back at home, her mother asked her, “You did that for attention right?” At the time, Smith told her mother she had, but now she says: “Why would I do something like that for attention? I felt ashamed.” Smith explains, “My initial thought was to agree so that [my parents] didn’t feel bad about themselves. Agree, so no one else looks at them badly.” Her family didn’t discuss the suicide attempt again with Smith, and though she continues to deal with self-harm today, she’s never talked about it with them.
Wromas’s and Smith’s experiences are not unique. There is a deep and enduring stigma around mental health in Black communities. “When you think about our history in this country and slavery, it was a necessity to [dismiss mental health],” says Taisha Caldwell-Harvey, PhD, a psychologist and the founder of The Black Girl Doctor, who goes by Dr Tai. “That was about survival. If something helps you survive, then your job as a mother is to teach your child how to also survive. And so you're like ‘I can't teach you to show emotions’ because you're operating off of this belief that it will destroy you. But when that mindset gets passed down and it's no longer a necessity, it turns into a problem.”
Black women in particular are taught from a young age to withhold their emotions. “It's this idea that ‘my grandmother did everything on her own, my mama did everything on her own, and I'm supposed to do everything on my own,’” Dr Tai says. “That is what it means to be a strong, successful, proud Black woman, and I think the weight of that is crushing for a lot of us.”
The pressure Black women feel and internalize to be strong and resilient in all situations is sometimes called the strong Black woman schema. While this mindset can be protective at times, research has also linked the belief system to psychological distress. In one study from 2011, researchers interviewed Black women about the "Superwoman Schema." Participants described feeling an obligation to suppress their emotions. Many of the women interviewed in the study said they considered asking for help a sign of weakness. But they also remembered times they’d avoided seeking out help when they probably could have used it. As a consequence of suppressing their emotions, some of the women described experiencing “breakdowns,” during which they became overwhelmed with the stresses of life.
Kyla Hubbard remembers feeling as though it would be selfish or silly to ask for emotional support although she needed it. When she was in kindergarten, her father was incarcerated, and he remained in prison until Hubbard was in eighth grade. While her home was missing an integral part, her family’s way of dealing was by disengaging entirely. “At the end of the day I had my necessities,” she says of her thought process during those years. “I’m not worried about where my meals are coming from or where my clothes are coming from. So I shouldn’t burden them with more.” Hubbard, now 19 years old, spent her developmental years ignoring a defining moment in her life, which she now believes stunted her emotional growth.
The “whitewashing” of mental health research in the US plays a major role in the stigma around mental health in Black communities, points out Amanda Ashley, a mental health counsellor and advocate. For decades, Black psychologists have spoken out against the tendency to center the white experience in professional studies; though this disparity led to the formation of the Association of Black Psychologists in 1968, it’s a problem that still persists. The intention behind the organization was to be separate from the American Psychology Association, due to the APA’s “complicit role in perpetuating white racism in society and the prevalence of studies featuring only white male participants.”
The fact that so much research into psychology and mental health is based on the white experience creates a huge barrier in Black people’s ability to seek quality care, says Ashley, whose studies focus on the destigmatization of Black mental health. “We don't come from the same places, we don't raise our children the same — because we can't — and we’re not afforded the same privileges,” she explains. A lack of culturally competent therapists also contributes to this problem. In 2019, 83% of people in the psychology workforce were white, and just 3% were Black, reports the APA. Geographical and cultural differences play a monumental role in mental health, so when your therapist or psychologist cannot connect to your cultural experiences, they’ll risk misdiagnosing you.
Black people may feel historically alienated by the available mental health resources; they may also feel afraid to seek help, due to years of mistreatment within the medical field. “There's a lot of fear and it’s warranted,” Dr Tai says.
The stigma around mental health in the Black community is incredibly harmful. It has devastating consequences: In 2018, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that suicide was the second leading cause of death in Black children aged 10 to 14, and the third leading cause of death in Black adolescents aged 15 to 19. When researchers examined suicide rates among children and young adults, they found that Black children aged 5 to 12 were roughly twice as likely to die by suicide than their white peers. The study authors didn’t look into why this disparity exists, but did flag the urgent need for appropriate mental health resources for this community.
The events of the past year have made it especially urgent to speak more openly about mental health. According to Psychiatric Times, the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black communities because of the existing medical, legal, and social issues they already face. As such, many Black Americans have been under high levels of stress over the past year. And though there is hope that the public health crisis caused by COVID-19 seems to slowly be lifting, many experts say that the mental health crisis is just beginning. It’s essential, therefore, for Black households to face mental health head on and no longer neglect their kids’ feelings. Sadness is not a sign of weakness; showing emotional vulnerability should be celebrated.
“It's hard for us to give somebody something we didn’t have,” acknowledges Jeanevra Pearson, clinical director of Advocate2Create, of Black parents’ reluctance to engage in conversations about mental health. For years Black moms fought for a future where their daughters would no longer be stuck in the same “crooked room” they’d been forced into. And while their survival efforts are appreciated, many Gen Z and millennial Black women are unwavering in their commitment toward breaking the generational exclusion of mental health. An American Psychology Association survey noted that Gen Z is already more likely to report their mental health concerns.
“Social media is able to bring awareness to [mental health] and allow more people to start talking about it,” Amber Dee, founder of Black Girl Therapist, says. “Since COVID began, I'm seeing more people coming [to therapy] because now you don't get judged for going. We're all going crazy in the house, right? But before, it was perceived as something to keep under wraps. Even though I feel like millennials broke that norm. Most of us are a ‘girl let me tell you what my therapist said,’ kind of person — so I think now it’s even more acceptable.”
The rise in virtual mental health resources, including educational social media accounts and support-based internet collectives, has made getting care more accessible to many people, and has made it easier for people to find social support — something that Pearson says is vital, especially for people whose family may not be open about mental health.
“If they don't have the emotional capacity and availability to hold you, they will harm you if you are held by them,” Pearson points out. It’s fine to speak to your family about mental health and try to show them your point of view, but if you’re in crisis, it’s essential to find support rather than trying to make them understand.
But Dr. Tai, Pearson, Ashley, and other experts say that young Black women are making great strides in breaking down the stigma around mental health. And through these online platforms focused on mental health, they’re realising they’re no longer constrained to the patterns that were instilled in them: Depression can be discussed at the dinner table.
“Knowing the things my parents have said to me and how it’s affected me has taught me that if I ever have kids, when there's something wrong with them, I’m never going to bring my problems into the situation,” Wromas says. “It’s going to be about them.”