Black Women and Mental Health
At the beginning of the 21st Century African American women find themselves achieving new heights and reaching new milestones. Education and hard work has enabled them to achieve successful careers and respect in mainstream society. Despite this good news, Black women still find themselves lagging behind Whites and other women in health and mental health indices. For example, the depression rate among African American women is estimated to be almost 50% higher than that of Caucasian women.
Black people account for approximately 25% of the mental health needs in this country though they only make up 11- 12% of the national population. To make matters worse, only 2% of the nation’s psychologists are Black.
The rates of mental health problems are higher than average for Black women because of psychological factors that result directly from their experience as Black Americans. These experiences include racism, cultural alienation, and violence and sexual exploitation.
Attitudes Toward Mental Health
It has historically been difficult to treat mental health problems in African American women. One reason for this is that Black women tend to minimize the serious nature of their problems. Many believe their symptoms are “just the blues” and are not proactive in changing their condition. There also exists a stigma placed on mental health problems within the African American culture that they are a sign of personal weakness, not a sickness.
Black Women and the Mental Health Profession
African American women tend to rely on supports other than mental health services. There is a strong reliance on community, the support of family, and the religious community during periods of emotional distress. Black women seek mental health care less than White women; and, when they do seek it, do so later in life and at later stages of their illness. Part of the explanation for this is the poor service they often receive from mental health professionals who, historically, have consistently under-diagnosed disorders like depression and over-diagnosed disorders like schizophrenia in the African American community. In addition, because of socioeconomic factors Black women have limited access to health care compared to Whites.
The Importance of Black Psychology
Black Psychology is the study of the psychological functioning of Black people. Some of the exciting and important research Black psychologists are doing today includes studying the importance of racial identity as a protective factor against depression and stress, studying the detrimental effects of racism and evaluating the effects of the media on the Black psyche. Other research includes the evaluation of therapies appropriate for people of African descent, and the implementation of prevention programs for inner-city youth.
African American women are among the originators of important Black psychology concepts. Psychologist Dr. Linda James Myers is well known in the field for her contribution of “Optimal Psychology.” This emphasizes achieving maximum mental health through three main concepts: 1) holistic-spiritual unity; 2) communalism; and 3) proper consciousness. It assumes that reality is spiritual and material at once an idea congruent with traditional African healing (Myers, 1991).
Dr. Francis Cress-Welsing is a well-known psychiatrist who provides insights into the processes by which African Americans are made to feel inferior. According to Dr. Cress-Welsing (1991) these include cultural beliefs such as women and Blacks being inferior, media images which suggest that the closer to White skin and hair texture, the more attractive one is, and 3) education and miseducation in the school systems which train youth to believe that there are no significant Black contributions to religion, technology, art, and other aspects of civilization.
Among the first Blacks in the U.S. to receive doctorate degrees in psychology, Dr. Mamie Clark and her husband Dr. Kenneth Clark, in the 1930s asked how growing up in an environment of racism affected the psyche of Black children. They found that Black children typically identified White dolls as desirable and Black dolls as ugly. These same children also stated that they resembled the undesirable Black dolls. This provided clear evidence that the racist environment of Black children negatively affected their self-esteem. Their research was instrumental in the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision effectively overturning legal racial segregation in U.S. schools.
How to Improve Mental Health
To improve ones mental health, Black psychologists and other mental health professionals agree that spirituality is a necessary concept in healing. Emphasizing spirituality creates attitudes that embrace hope and positivity. Some keys to optimal mental health include:
Know Thyself. A healthy identity is critical for overall good mental health. For women of African descent, this means seeing themselves as the recipients of generations of collective wisdom and experience from African and African American culture.
Use Social Supports. Using social networks found in the family, neighborhood, church, mosque, temple and community is how Black women seek healing through others with similar experiences. Currently, many independent support groups for Black women are being created around the country.
Build Self-Confidence. This comes from action. Those who put forth effort to achieve their positive ambitions must overcome fear and work hard. Regardless of how successful we are in the end, it is our determination and sense of control that gives us confidence in self.
Recognize Symptoms. No two people experience mental disorders in the same manner. Symptoms will vary in severity and duration among different people. For example, while feelings of worthlessness is a common symptom of depression in White women, changes in appetite is cited as a common sign of depression for Black women.
Develop an Attitude of Optimism. Those who think positively are greatly immune to the stress and feelings of depression common in everyday life.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure. Maintain a good health especially when not sick. Most illnesses of the mind can be prevented by following the above daily so always practice being hopeful, forgiving others, and resisting stress.
"What the Blues is All About: Black Women Overcoming Stress and Depression\" by Angela Mitchell with Kennise Herring, Ph.D
Cress-Welsing, F. (1991). The Isis papers: The keys to the color. Chicago: Third World Press.
Myers, L.J. (1991). Expanding the psychology of knowledge optimally: The importance of world view revisited. In R.L. Jones (Ed.) Black Psychology, third edition (pp15-28). Berkeley: Cobb and Henry.