We need to talk about poor mental health among black women. In the UK depression and anxiety are most prevalent among black women, but their stories are rarely part of the mainstream conversation.
Thankfully, as we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Week, it has never been easier to open up. The government has made mental health a priority and even the Royal Family are talking about their mental health issues. But the experiences of black women and the issues that they face are missing from the national dialogue.
The reasons why black women suffer disproportionately from poor mental health are complex and still not fully understood. But we know that race plays a huge part. Black people in the UK are more likely than white people to be diagnosed with mental health problems and to be sectioned.
Navigating life as a black woman in the UK is fraught with overt and covert racism, discrimination, and daily micro-aggressions. This can include being undermined, overlooked, and judged more harshly at work, being constantly reminded that you don’t meet western beauty standards and rarely seeing the full range of your humanity expressed in the media.
Added to that is the pressure we feel to be twice as good as our white counterparts, even though in most circumstances it only gets us half as far. And there is the weight of representing your race, knowing that people see your colour before they see you.
But while we have plenty to be angry about the way we express our pain and vulnerability can be stifled and constrained by fear of being labelled an angry black woman. This deeply offensive stereotype, which has its roots in racism and slavery, portrays black women as naturally aggressive and confrontational.
Constantly policing your behaviour and diminishing your authentic self so that others feel at ease in your presence is exhausting and places a huge emotional toll.
It’s no wonder then that many of my black friends now in their mid-thirties who have spent the past decade and half trying to progress within their careers experience burnout.
My mental health battle began in my teens. I was depressed, anxious and miserable (largely due, I suspect, to growing up black and poor amid racism in 1980s London) but I just assumed it was normal teenage angst. But in my twenties my anxiety became debilitating, affecting all areas of my life. I never took any time off work or asked my employers to adjust my working hours. I didn’t want to be marked as a difficult, problematic black woman.
It shames me that I actively sought to mask my anxieties and appear passive and non-threatening.
I eventually sought help through therapy in my late twenties but my black skin felt like the elephant in the room. My lived experience as black woman in a white dominated society and how that might impact on my mental health was rarely commented upon. Thankfully I have found ways to manage my mental health but I still feel let down by the care I received and the lack of awareness about the experiences of women like me.
It’s essential that conversations about mental health are inclusive. Recognising that poor mental health can affect anyone and that people from marginalised groups are at greater risk can help to reduce shame and stigma and improve access to treatments.
We need honest, open discussions about mental health that we can all be part of.