#UniMentalHealthDay: “I’m Tired of Being the Strong Black Woman”


October 2018.


I had just come back from an amazing, life-changing summer. I felt on top of the world, I’d reconnected with God, travelled and was ready to conquer my second year of university.


But, still, I found myself sitting in a waiting room at my university seeking help. My mental health was depleting. I sat there, after a friend convinced me to go and ask for help. I had called her and talked about what I thought were ‘holiday blues.’ She wasn’t convinced.


“Sarah G-Gith…” The white lady calls me into the room. Sitting comfortably opposite me, she smiles, “what’s wrong?”


“I-I” I stutter on my words, I’ve never come this far before, how do I explain how I’m feeling?


“I can’t eat chicken nuggets anymore.”


She frowns slightly but listens.


I was exhausted. I explained the emotionally taxing summer, ending an unhealthy situation, the anxiety of uni and money, worrying about a friend who wasn’t well, worrying about the kids from camp. Are they safe? There are so many bad people in the world. So many. And they do terrible things. I thought about it, now I was alone with my thoughts, I thought about it a lot. And I couldn’t eat chicken nuggets, I cried. And I worried I’d never eat chicken nuggets again.


She told me to go to the GP.


Go to the GP, you seem depressed, it’s best to be put on some medication.


I smiled wearily and left.


I didn’t go to the GP, I prayed about it, prayed I would get better and carried on.


And that’s what happened. I prayed and carried on.


It got worse.


From July 2019 to October 2020 my mental health took a turn for the worse. Isolated, depleted, numb. Racism, the pandemic, church hurt. I felt hopeless.


I tried to counter argue with myself, remind myself I was privileged and alive. I was strong. I’ll get through it. I always get through it.


But it occurred to me one day, who told you ‘strong’ meant invincible?


I’ve struggled with my mental health for years.


I used to bargain with myself. I had some very unhealthy coping mechanism, which got worse when I went to university. I never felt comfortable or capable to articulate how I felt because I was surrounded by people who told me I was ‘strong,’ I’d ‘get over it,’ and ‘pray about it’.


I also believed Black people didn’t struggle with mental health.


And this misconception is a failure to the Black community.


In the UK, depression is higher amongst Black and ethnic minorities in comparison to white communities (Memon et al). Male inpatients from Black African backgrounds are significantly more likely to have committed suicide than White British men (Bhui et al).


Yet, although the stats show the struggle with mental health, Black and ethnic minorities are hesitant to get help. Statistics show, Black people are more likely to receive treatment for mental illness through court or police intervention rather than on our own terms (Kwakye).


Why?


I’ll use myself as an example.


I was surrounded by people in my community who, although had good intentions, did not have the right rhetoric to fully understand how to be there for me. Strength, particularly for Black women, is praised for her resilience in the face of adversity.


Yet, the ‘Strong Black Woman’ trope comes from centuries of slavery and colonialism, which commodified, abused and assaulted Black women. To justify this, scientists set out to prove Black people, specifically women, did not feel pain. This misconception is still present in medical institutions but also found its way into the Black community. In which strength, for Black women, becomes synonymous with ‘unfeeling,’ ‘invincible,’ ‘unaffected by suffering and trauma’.


In terms of faith, there seems to be an imbalance in understanding and discerning between mental, emotional and spiritual health. Additionally, the unhealthy advocacy of the prosperity gospel. If you believe it, you’ll receive it! Yet, the Bible accounts for no correlation between faith and prosperity, healing etc.


In response to the university rep I spoke to, she is an example of institutionalised racism. Her response was to send me to the GP and get medicated. This is the regurgitation of institutional racism, which quickly medicate Black people as the sole treatment. Rather than advocating/ suggesting alternative treatments in addition to/or in place of medication, such as cognitive therapies (Arday).


Many Black and ethnic minorities struggle when interacting with healthcare professionals. It is reported ⅔ BME students experiencing mental illness often experience discrimination from healthcare professionals (Arday). Healthcare professionals refuse to acknowledge the experiences of racism as contributing to the state of mental health. Chelsea Kwakye in Taking Up Space suggests how Black people seeking help can ‘quickly slip into providing emotional and educational labour’ just to get them to understand your experience as a racialised individual.


In the moment, I did not recognise nor understand what she was saying. Retrospectively, I’m not surprised by what she said. She wanted to provide a solution which led her down to an automated response. Solve the problem rather than understand the problem. Similarly, the people around believed praying and reminding me of my strength was solving the problem. They did not recognise praising my strength was internalised misorgynoir. I understand now, I wanted to be listened to.


The stigma surrounding mental illness makes it hard to listen to people going through mental illness. The stigma surrounding mental illness within the Black community makes it impossible to listen and get help.


Living in Germany in 2019, I found my coping mechanisms no longer worked and I promised myself I would save money and get help.


In October 2020, I started therapy.


Seeking out help is hard.


As a student, uni aided the depletion of my mental health but also gave me a new perspective on understanding mental health. As a Black woman, seeking out help is scary, especially as there is so much against you. But you are deserving of help. You cannot do it all on your own.


I accept and acknowledge I am in a privileged position. Therapy is not cheap. However, I was not helping myself by continuously sweeping it under the rug. I needed help. I needed help from someone who could help me untangle and make sense of my discombobulated thoughts. I needed an individual who could empathise with the Black woman’s experience. I needed safety. I needed to listen and be listened to.


It wasn’t easy but I needed to help myself for me.