Dr. Natasha Williams Sheds Light on the Stigmas of Mental Health to Empower Black Women

“Mental health” and “counseling” weren’t words often heard within my community. They were heard in my home only after my mother started the process of being a foster mom. Even then, the conversations were few and far between. This probably is a similar scenario for many of the #ourvoicematters blog readers. Can you remember the first time you heard a conversation about mental health?

The topic has gained momentum recently due to the high number of suicides and celebrities who are bringing it to light. It is a pretty big rabbit hole but by traveling down this hole we can create conversations that shift stigmas. Empowering people to see the signs and knowing how to act and react could do the world some good.

It begins with having a conversation. Things like abuse, divorce, PTSD, drugs or a bombardment of negativity can greatly alter our mode. The deeper conversation must be how to determine when that momentary mood shift is something we need to look at a little deeper. Even more of an impact will be made when we are able to seek out help when we have a better understanding of what mental health includes.

Good mental health routines and communication are two things that we each should have in our self-care tool kit. As entrepreneurs, speakers, mothers, wives, and all the many other hats we tend to wear, self-care is vital! It affects and infects our homes, businesses, and relationships.

Here is what Dr. Natasha had to say:

Modern beliefs and symbolism in our community have created significant difficulties.  The “strong black women” and the “angry black women” stereotypes depict images of proud women who don’t take no for an answer.  Black girls are often taught to “keep your head up” to get through anything.  While it can be seen as a great life lesson, it may also allow black women to use this same coping strategy through adulthood which may foster an environment in which they have to manage everything.  Regardless of what is happening in your life, black women are literally bred to be strong ‘all the time’.  While this can be seen as positive in some aspects, the image has been carved in order to not allow ourselves our humanity. If you are suffering from depression or anxiety, black women often don’t acknowledge it because they believe that they can’t. The stereotypical image of the strong black woman can also be seen as a barrier to access to mental health treatment.  Issues may not be seen as mental health-related due to societal mental health stigma.

 

Mental Health and Stigma

 

One out of five Canadians  (20%) will experience mental illness in their lifetime (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2013). For African, Caribbean and Black Canadians, the struggle for mental health is often a silent one. With misunderstandings within the community around what mental illness means, and barriers that prevent individuals from accessing help or safe spaces, dealing with anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses becomes challenging and complicated.

 

The Architype of the Strong Black Woman

 

Modern beliefs and symbolism in our community have created some significant issues.  The “strong black women” and the “angry black women” stereotypes depict images of proud women who don’t take no for an answer.  Black girls are often taught to “keep your head up” to get through anything.  While it can be seen as a great life lesson, it may also allow black women to use this same coping strategy through adulthood which may foster an environment in which they have to manage everything.  Regardless of what is happening in your life, black women are literally bred to be strong ‘all the time’.  While this can be seen as positive in some aspects, the image has been carved in order to not allow ourselves our humanity.  If you are suffering from depression or anxiety, women often don’t acknowledge it because they believe that they cant.  Women of African descent continue to find themselves behind Caucasians and other women in health and mental health indices.

 

Psychological Implications

 

The stereotypical image of the strong black woman can be seen as a barrier to access to mental health treatment.  It would be viewed as “treason” to admit that black women cannot cope.  Issues that many black women face may not be seen as mental health-related due to societal mental health stigma.  There are few black women that will seek mental health treatment and if they do seek treatment, many times it is for somatic concerns with their primary physician.  It has historically been difficult to treat mental health problems in African Canadian women. There exists a stigma placed on mental health problems within the African Canadian culture that mental illness is a sign of personal weakness, not a sickness.  Many times African Canadian women tend to rely on support other than mental health services which can include the local community, the support of family, and the religious community during periods of emotional distress.  African Canadian women seek mental health care services at reduced rates in comparison to Caucasian women; and, when they do seek it, they do so later in life and at later stages of their illness. Part of the explanation for this is the poor service that African Canadian women receive from mental health professionals who, historically, have consistently under-diagnosed disorders like depression and over-diagnosed disorders like schizophrenia in the African Canadian community.  In addition, because of socioeconomic factors, African Canadian women have limited access to health care compared to Caucasian women.

 

How do we address the gaps?

 

Know Thyself. 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 diasporic culture.

 

Use Social Support. Using social networks found in the family, neighborhood, church, mosque, temple, and community is how women of African descent seek healing through others with similar experiences.

 

Build Self-Confidence. This comes from action. Those who put forth the 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 ourselves.

 

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 Caucasian women, changes in appetite are cited as a common sign of depression for women of African descent (Blackwomenshealth.com).

 

In conclusion, African Canadian women are faced with several barriers and obstacles which may impact their ability and willingness to seek and secure mental health treatment.  Practitioners must aim to appreciate the historical context of stigma within the community in order to inform their approaches to treatment and to enhance the psychotherapeutic alliance.  This understanding will inform the mental health practitioner in regards to the presentation of the symptomatology and inform treatment approaches and protocols.

 

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Dr. Natasha Williams is a Women’s Radical Self Care and Self-Leadership Expert, Clinical Psychologist, Best-selling author, International Speaker. She is the creator of the on-line course “Reclaim your Superwoman-How to increase your self-confidence and find your voice after divorce and the Clinical Director of Allied Psychological Services in Toronto, Canada

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