Race and gender-biased stereotypes contribute to mental health challenges for Black women
Some Black women might feel "asking for help is a sign of weakness, and I'm not weak," which prevents them from seeking help for mental health problems.
This story is part of a local journalism collaboration about the impacts of mental health on Black Floridians and how they are facing a variety of challenges.
Dr. LaDonna Butler, a survivor of domestic and sexual violence as a teen, knows the challenge of enduring trauma, compounded by facing stereotypes and other systemic barriers.
“I went through periods of time where I overperformed, I underperformed, I felt damaged in some way, I didn’t have very good boundaries, either let everyone in or shut everyone out,” revealed Butler, referring to her struggles as a teen in the aftermath of sexual trauma.
Butler has since become a licensed mental health counselor and founder of The Well for Life in the Deuces neighborhood of St. Petersburg.
“I eventually would get the help that I needed, and I determined at that point that I wanted to be a part of the solution,” Butler stated. “I never wanted to see another Black girl across from me to not be safe enough, to not feel understood enough, or feel worthy enough, especially in her space of brokenness.”
“I was going to use my new voice, my voice that has been refined to be able to say that it is okay to not be okay because you will be okay again, Butler added.
One challenge to recovery from trauma is the strong Black woman stereotype, which “goes back to this feeling [that] Black women have high pain tolerance," which is rooted in racism but could also be internalized by "Black folks who believe the same lie,” she explained.
Butler explained that often when society says, "You are strong," or "How quickly you got over that," they are essentially ignoring your pain or they expect you to move on as if nothing happened.
The angry Black woman stereotype could be another recovery challenge.
“The feeling of being tired or fatigued, or hesitation, those aren’t seen as trauma experienced, but as an angry Black woman,” Butler noted. “Others are given the benefit of grace and compassion. For some Black women, they aren't given the same compassion and empathy, and there is an expectation of strength of grace, even in the midst of absolute disruption.”
The jezebel stereotype, which overly sexualizes Black women, could also "diminish the impact" of a sexually traumatic event, "as if she asked for it," Butler said.
Tanya Valentine Allen, with a Master’s of Social Work degree, is a case manager at Largo Medical. She said the strong Black women and angry Black women stereotypes, in particular, were like "a double-edged sword” because what’s seen as strength in standing up for yourself could also be seen as “you’re that angry woman.”
Furthermore, Allen said some might feel "asking for help is a sign of weakness, and I'm not weak," which prevents them from seeking help for mental health problems.
“I think another thing that interferes is our ability to access mental health services with people who are like us, where they’re not judgmental,” Allen added. “We’re misunderstood often, and I think that interferes with us seeking help that’s very much needed.”
Russia Collins, a licensed mental health counselor in St. Petersburg, works with young children and their families. Collins also emphasized the importance of representation and culturally competent care.
It’s essential to make sure that “clinicians get the best training to deal with the symptoms, and the traumas, and histories of the populations in which they’re serving,” Collins said. That includes historical and ongoing systemic racism, intergenerational racial trauma, and socio-economic injustice that all contribute to physiological and mental health care disparities.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), racism is a public health crisis.
Systemic racism has led to the mass incarceration of Black men, sometimes leaving Black women to raise families on their own, perpetuating the Black “matriarch” stereotype.
There tend to be issues that “choose that lot in life for us," said Dr. Brittany Peters, clinical director and owner, Center for Wellness & Clinical Development, LLC. Referring to the matriarch role, she said, “We’d choose to have our men present to take the stress off.”
Peters added that if a Black woman doesn’t have a Black therapist, she should still be able to express concerns about racial trauma.
“If there’s something bothering us, we can say, ‘I know that you’re not a Black person, but I need to know that this is a safe place to talk about … I need to know that you can validate and affirm my experience,’” she said.
Stress is normal, but through prolonged stress, a person's brain is exposed to increased levels of a hormone called cortisol, which weakens the immune system, making it easier for a person to get physically sick. Stress can also worsen symptoms of mental illness, according to NAMI.
Studies show exercise and meditation can help reduce stress.
Hillary Van Dyke, a yoga teacher in St. Petersburg, said that practicing yoga a few times a week for five minutes to an hour can be part of holistic healing.
“There are so many ways we get taught that we don’t matter, that we should put other people ahead of us, but if you think about it as a 15-minute to three-hour chunk over the course of seven days, I think that makes it a lot more obtainable to try to just throw in some yoga and meditation into your life,” she said.
Local meditation instructor Latreca Bonner added meditation could help people ease anxiety.
“I also have those times focusing a lot on the future, a future we can’t control,” Bonner said, but meditation “helps me to stay present.”
Collins said women — usually starting when they are young -- learn to navigate by trying to be the least disruptive to others, and in that, mental health needs can be missed.
For healing, “it’s important to just listen and allow space for that,” Collins said.
“When you find yourself isolated, not able to find connection in the ways you normally would, disruptions in your normal relationships, disruptions in your eating and sleeping, those are signs that you need some help,” Butler added.
Sommer Brokaw is a reporter with The Weekly Challenger. This story is part of a collaboration with The Florida Courier, The Weekly Challenger, RoyalTee Magazine and WUSF Public Media. This collaboration is a part of the national America Amplified community engagement initiative, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
- If you are or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7 at 800-273-TALK (8255).
- To connect with a trained crisis counselor and receive free 24/7 crisis support through text message, text NAMI to 741-741.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 800-799-SAFE (7233)
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: Call 800-656-HOPE (4673)
- If you or someone you know needs help, call the NAMI Helpline, Monday-Friday from 10-10 p.m. ET, at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
American Psychiatric Association’s Mental Health Facts (2017) – Use of Services and Disparities
- Rates of mental illness in African Americans are similar to those in the general population. But disparities exist regarding mental health care services.
- Only one-in-three African Americans who need mental health care receive it
- African Americans are also more likely to use emergency rooms or primary care (rather than mental health specialists).
American Psychiatric Association’s Mental Health Facts – Barriers to Care
- Stigma associated with mental illness
- Lack of providers from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds
- Lack of access to culturally competent providers
- Lack of insurance, underinsurance
- Distrust of the health care system