In the latter months of 2012 and through to 2013, random outbursts of tears and feelings of sadness snuck intermittently into my life - gradually becoming more frequent as I battled a challenging and isolating work scenario. The constant feelings of unimportance and failure weighed heavily on my mind and I felt incredibly lonely, even though I was constantly surrounded by friends and family. Not once in that period did it cross my mind open up to anyone except my boyfriend or even seek professional help.
And undoubtedly one of the reasons why I didn’t feel like I could seek help or speak up was that, as a black woman, there often feels like there is an unspoken rule that you don’t complain or grumble about personal hardships.
So this week, when Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams announced via Instagram that she was seeking treatment for her mental health, I felt a mix of sorrow and pride. Sorrow for the fact that she was suffering from an illness, but pride because she had done something I failed to do. Michelle Williams had the courage to be open and honest about her mental health challenges and her desire to identify them and most importantly overcome them.
Yet, statistics show that more often than not, black women, unfortunately, take my approach and decide not to seek professional treatment and support for the mental health issues they may face. According to statistics, 29% of black women are more likely to suffer from a common mental health disorder compared to 24% of Asian women and 21% of white British women. Yet, the relationship becomes more startling when statistics show despite black women being more likely to experience a common mental health problem, black Britons have the lowest treatment rate of any ethnic group in the country.
The truth is that race plays an undeniable part in being a factor as to why black women suffer mental health problems and why we refuse to seek treatment. Racial stereotypes such as the ‘strong black women’ have silenced us from speaking about mental health. Black women are expected to endure racism and sexism and not complain because society has conditioned us and those from the opposite gender and other ethnic groups to the idea that despite the hardships black women face we can tolerate anything that comes our way.
It was one of the reasons I refused to speak out loud about my struggles in 2012 and 2013. Roberta, who has been clinically diagnosed with depression in 2014, also says the racial stereotype still takes its toll on her when speaking about her illness.
‘I still feel as though I am battling the internal conflict with myself to present day regarding the narrative and the toll it has taken on my wellbeing overall.
‘The trope of the “strong black woman” lacks nuance and the empathy needed to be exercised towards black women.
‘It has often made me feel as though speaking about my mental health issues lessens me or portrays me as weak or incapable.’
Psychologist, Dr, Samantha Rennalls also agrees that strong black woman narrative has hindered black women coming forward with their mental health problems.
‘There is a narrative of “strength” within the black community, which arguably stems from dealing with centuries of individual and systemic abuse and oppression. This may be particularly true for black women who may be expected to have the emotional strength to meet their responsibility of holding the family together despite the traumas they face.’
Yet, it wasn’t just Michelle Williams as a black woman speaking about her mental health challenges resonated with black women like myself. Since leaving her Destiny Child days behind, the singer has forged a successful career as a gospel singer. Black people can sometimes have committed and at times, complex relationships with the church. For many of us, our parents who left their birth countries to start new lives in the UK, found solace in black churches which have been at the heart of the different black communities for generations. Meanwhile, the Windrush generation wasn’t allowed to worship in Church of England venues, so they had to form their own bible groups. The church has often provided a safety blanket to the racism black people often face in society, especially those black Britons from previous generational groups. However, when it comes to mental health, some churches in black communities haven’t always seen the benefits of turning to healthcare professionals - and advise worshippers to seek God and God only.
27-year-old Jen, has suffered from depression, anxiety and PTSD and said that when she opened up about these health challenges, those from church were quick to condemn her.
‘When you are raised with the belief that with God has the answer to everything, you can’t talk about things like depression.
‘I was told things like God doesn’t love me anymore [by members of the church].
‘It took me a long time to realise that none of this was true and made it easier to reach out to loved ones for help.
And as a Christian myself, Jen’s story resonates with me – it’s undoubtedly one of the reasons I didn’t feel comfortable coming out and expressing my own problems and how they were taking their toll on my mental well-being. I was scared that members of my church would tell me to simply pray more or like Jen, be told that there was a problem with my personal relationship with God.
Kehinde, who suffered from depression and social anxiety says that her church environment never spoke about mental health and its silence around the subject made her feel as though it was something she could not discuss.
‘I find that the Church stays away from discussing mental health in general, but even when it is in dialogue, there is more advocacy for depression and other disorders to be treated with prayers and spending time with fellow believers.’
While many black women have found the church has been a place of encouragement to seek outside help for mental illnesses, there are also stories of black women who have been silenced by fellow worshippers when it comes to being diagnosed with disorders that affect our mental health.
When black women are already more likely to suffer mental health problems after navigating a world of sexism and racism, and feel like they cannot always speak out due to the stereotyped belief that we are seen as superhuman, then a reluctance to address mental health adequately in our churches can be incredibly damaging.
And it’s just the church - other institutions in society have not done enough to help black women feel comfortable in discussing their mental health. The mental health conversation in media has come far, but it often dominated by white celebrities. Yes, it great that women such as Selena Gomez, Adele, Demi Lovato have come forward but media often ignores the experiences of black women in the public eye who have had similar struggles.
All of this is why Michelle Williams, a black Christian woman, talking about her own mental health is groundbreaking for women like me. She isn’t just helping to further break the broader stigma that surrounds the topic of mental health, but she is helping to shatter the idea that black Christian women must soldier on when it comes to our mental health challenges.
In fact, Michelle’s admission made me open up about my mental health struggles to my best friends in a WhatsApp conversation this week - five years on. Michelle’s simple Instagram post gave me a starting point to lose my shame when it comes to mental health and I hope everyone sees her honesty as a starting for black women to no longer go unheard in the mental health narrative.