The Best Thing I Did For My Mental Health Was Ban The Phrase ‘Strong Black Woman’

For presenter and cultural commentator Zeze Millz, embracing her vulnerability was the most important thing she could do for her mental health in this hardest of years…

ZeZe Millz

by Zeze Millz |

At the beginning of this year I decided that I was no longer going to use the term “Strong Black Woman”. As Black women we have been conditioned from birth to always appear to the world as strong and void of any emotion. We shouldn’t appear weak, or cry and shouldn’t allow people to see us being vulnerable. Many of us have carried this narrative into our adult lives.

During the pandemic I realised how detrimental this way of thinking had been to my mental health. Having that ‘Strong black woman’ trope wasn’t allowing me to process the constant trauma I was being exposed to on a daily basis. Not only did black women have to live through a pandemic that was scientifically proven to affect us more than white women, but we also had to witness the continually appearing cycle and news coverage of black women - such as Breonna Taylor - being murdered by the police. I’ve said this before, but imagine continuously seeing people that look like you being killed, murdered by the very people who are meant to protect us? Imagine the fatigue, the post-traumatic stress (that we didn’t actually know had a term for it) that deeply permeates our very psyche. The anguish felt for our feelings being disregarded and invalidated as not real - when we know they are. Imagine feeling like the world just doesn’t care about you.

In a recent BBC News shorts, journalist Abdirahim Saeed explored the government stats that stated that black women are ‘more likely than white women to experience common mental health problems, anxiety and depression’. “29.3% of black women suffer from common mental disorder” it said, with” 20.9% of white women suffering from the same mental disorder”. Although this is the case, only 6.5% of black women receive treatment for their mental or emotional problems, compared to 14.5% of White British women. A black woman’s experience is something that is often overlooked and often not spoken about. Even amongst our friends and families we do not share how we truly feel, as we have to keep up the “strong black woman” narrative. We’ve been made to feel that speaking about our emotions is weak and we should just simply ‘get on with it’.

I realised myself this year that not processing my emotions was starting to catch up with me when an overwhelming sense of anxiety started taking over me on a daily basis. It dawned on me that although we had all been through a tough time in the last year; my experience as a black woman was nowhere near the same as a white woman. I made the decision to restart my therapy sessions during the pandemic as I started to notice the toll it was taking on me - mentally and physically.

Black women have been raised by other ‘strong Black women’ who had no choice but to be strong and resilient - they lived in an atmosphere of survival - and this has been passed down to us. But this narrative has infiltrated the way the world sees us. We are constantly portrayed as the feisty, confrontational, aggressive black woman, who has a chip on her shoulder. We are unable to express our thoughts and feelings how a white woman would be able to do so, as we are not given the space to feel or be vulnerable.

The last 12 months have been arduous for Black women – we often take the weight of injustices on our shoulders and in our hearts, and we are often at the forefront of protests and change – the Black Lives Matter protests in London last summer, for example. A lot of people view this as part of the role or job of a “strong black woman,” but give little thought to how this affects our mental health. Yes, white women may come out and march with us in solidarity but once they return home, they are able to drop that weight at their doorstep. We carry it at all times.

Black women’s mental health can no longer be overlooked. We are not “strong black women'' because we want to be, we are strong black women because we HAVE to be. We are tired, drained, exhausted and heavy and as much as we would love the drop outside struggles on the doorstep, but are unable to do that, because the moment we switch on the television or scroll through social media, we are reminded that our reality is different from any other person. We are constantly fighting to prove that we matter.

What I have noticed lately, is for a lot of us, we are actively choosing to say ‘enough is enough, I can’t be all of this, I am vulnerable and I need to be allowed to reside in this emotion and not feel guilty for it’. We are leaning more on our fellow friends, group chats and sister friends to uplift us. We’re crying, we’re laughing. It’s almost like we recharge each other. It feels good to stand in our truth and vulnerability. Because at the end of the day, like how we looked to our elders, younger women are looking to us, and we owe it to them to know that yes, be strong, but there’s also strength in saying ‘I am not always the strong black woman you perceive me to be’

You can watch the Zeze Millz show on YouTube here and she is on Instagram @zezemillz.

For mental health support or to pledge an act of kindness on this Mental Health Awareness Week, visit wheresyourheadat.org.

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