Dark Times Under the Radar: Black Women and Mental Illness

Luigi Morante
Luigi Morante

By Lakesha Lafayett

TW: This post contains discussions of trauma, suicide, and self-harm, and may be triggering for some readers.

It’s a darkness and chaos many people experience, but few understand. Mental health issues are no doubt a problem, yet in trying to get help, black women and other women of color face challenges that those not part of a marginalized identity will never experience.

From early colonial times to the present day, black women have faced many trials, and have been on the receiving end of a hard blow. A punch packed with discrimination, patriarchy, and misogyny.

Black women rarely come to mind when people think of someone who has a mental illness, because our struggles often fall on deaf ears.

In the beginning, I didn’t know what was going on. I was 11 years old and scared. I had a long history of trauma by that point, and the feelings and thoughts I was experiencing only exacerbated it. The effects came on gradually. Some days I would laugh, be silly, and have fun at recess like the other kids my age, but there were more days when I had crying spells and a feeling of utter despair. I felt slowed down and I had no desire to get out of bed to go to school. I just wanted to withdraw.

I couldn’t focus enough to even take a test, because my mind was in such a fog that even basic things became difficult. My grades were steadily declining and I got into trouble because of that. Most terrifying of all, I began to hear voices. They would call me names and constantly scream at me, or whisper about how I was worthless. I also dealt with nightmares and flashbacks from my past. That definitely didn’t help everything else I was dealing with at the time.

And yet I was expected to be strong through all of this, and couldn’t turn to anyone with my problems. Because black women, we’re told, don’t feel like this.

This “strong black women” stereotype, although seemingly positive, does a disservice to black women and women of color as a whole. It suggests that we are superhuman and can never break down. Black women are often held up as an unwavering force in the face of any obstacle, and when they do not fit this, they are either “crazy” or, in the terms of the black church, have a “spiritual problem” or are “letting Satan win.”

I’ve heard this many times myself. When I was once hospitalized for suicidal feelings, a nurse at intake berated me for coming into the psych ward. She said black girls didn’t have these kinds of problems, and that I was “a disgrace to black women.” Mind you, I was 11 at the time. And she was a black woman herself. Hearing this from another black woman shows how deep this internalized stigma goes.

While in the children’s psychiatric ward, I was diagnosed with major depression with psychotic features and post-traumatic stress disorder. I was put on a medication that actually helped, although some of my family didn’t think I needed medication and that I could just rely on God, not doctors.

There is such a stigma against mental illness already, and women of color — especially black women — are even more stigmatized. It’s easy for them to fall through the cracks of the traditional system and not receive proper treatment. I was dismissed by many doctors when I tried to seek help. For instance, when I got up the courage to say I thought I had an eating disorder, the doctor called my family and said it was “all in my head” and I was fine. Months later, I became so sick I was fainting due to not eating and purging.

One reason it’s easy to dismiss black women with mental illness like this is that the media rarely, if ever, tells our stories. When the topic of mental illness is brought up in television shows or the media generally, the character with mental illness is almost always young, white, and wealthy. I have yet to see a black woman written into a plot that deals with mental illness. Movies like Silver Linings Playbook, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, made-for-TV movies, and the like portray mental illness as something white people go through, and rarely anyone else.

The stigmatization of black women with mental health issues happens not only in the media, but within families and cultures as well. I grew up in the black church, and mental illness was very taboo and rarely talked about. When it was discussed, there was a huge lack of understanding of what was going on. Before they came around, a few of my family members attributed my suicidal feelings and thoughts to my not leaning on the Lord, and told me I should pull myself up by my bootstraps and get moving.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. For those with a serious mental illness, more work needs to be done, and a good kick in the pants isn’t enough. Most of my family members had an idea of what was going on with me and understood, because mental health issues abounded in our family, but a few didn’t understand the full picture of my struggles.

I’m grateful for the family members who did understand. In the beginning, a few just thought I was trying to get out of school or get attention, but inside I had so much pain and so much despair. Some figured that I needed to pray more often and read my Bible, and so they gave me the typical religious response. Yet it got to the breaking point where I became suicidal and hopeless. My symptoms worsened, which led to the development of other mental health issues including self-harm and an eating disorder that started when I was 14 years old.

While people of color’s mental health issues aren’t something we talk about, it’s especially important that we do so. Black women’s mental struggles are often compounded with social struggles — they must cope not only with mental illness, but with racism, sexism, and the patriarchy as well.

Black women have had it hard since the days of slavery, and in that time strength was built. From taking care of Master’s babies to working in the fields, to fighting to be treated like human citizens and not the white man’s bitch, to the ghetto-fabulous, to the “baby mama drama,” to just being a “booty” devoid of personhood like a Hottentot display, black women have had to develop strength, but it has been a lot to bear.

Being strong was often the only option for black women, because they had to fight against all that came down on them. And while women of color who survive trauma are left with many of the same scars as white women, black women and women of color immediately face stigma if they show them.

We cannot be expected to carry the weight of it forever. It takes a toll.

Yet our society doesn’t allow us to say that we are so depressed we can’t get out of bed, that we have nightmares of our trauma, that our moods are daunting, that we harm ourselves, that we don’t want to go on. Because as soon as we do, we are considered by others, even in our own community, to be weak.

Hearing this over and over can lead to low self-esteem and internalized stigma. Even now, people still tell me that I have “white girl problems.” People who would see my scars would tell me, “I never saw a black girl who cut herself.” Due to the stigma, I became quieter about what was going on inside of me.

Nowadays, I’m in recovery. It took a lot of effort on my part, along with the help of my therapist, psychiatrist, family, and friends, who I was lucky enough to have. Not all women have these options.

I’m not cured. I have good days and bad days, and I take it one step at a time. My family has been understanding, and now they see that it’s not a flippant experience. They are extremely supportive, and I love and thank them every day.

But although I’m doing better, the stigma against black women living with mental illness remains. There has to be a fight not only against the stigma, but also against the stereotypes, the lack of affordable treatment, and the ignorance. Recognizing mental health in the black community is very important, because it so often flies under the radar, especially for women.

You can be strong, but you don’t have to be strong all the time. You don’t have to be superwoman.

Lakesha Lafayett is a California girl, student, and writer of poetry currently working on her degree in social and behavioral science. As a queer woman of color, she is also adamant about the rights of others. She runs a Facebook page called Intersectional Voices, and is also on TumblrYouTube, and Twitter. In her spare time, she likes to crochet, make jewelry and cuddle with her kitty.