Black Women and Depression: Our Tears Don’t Compromise Our Strength

“I’m fighting with depression today. Ion even know why. I’m exhausted. But not like from work. Just exhausted from tryna figure out life.”

Yesterday, I sent the statement above via text to a friend. After spending much of the morning forcefully convincing myself to go to work instead of staying home in bed (although I was well-rested) and struggling to stop the tears from streaming down my face, I sent the message in order to engage in some type of truth-telling, to allow myself to feel and process. As the day passed, I won the fight with the symptoms of depression after doing some positive self-talk and reading.

This morning I awoke to find my Facebook timeline filled with the sad news of the death of Karyn Washington, reportedly from suicide. Washington was the 22-year-old founder of For Brown Girls (FBG), a blog dedicated to uplifting and supporting young Black women and combatting attacks on their self-esteem. Of particular focus for the site were issues related to colorism. Specifically, one of the purposes of FBG was, “to encourage those struggling with accepting having a darker skin complexion to love and embrace the skin they are in”. [See Dr. Yaba Blay’s work on Pretty.Period. as well.] In addition to her work for FBG, Washington prompted women and girls with darker skin complexions to be proud to wear red lipstick and similar hues with her #DarkSkinRed Lip Project. The Project, a response to rapper A$AP Rocky’s suggestion that women with darker skin shouldn’t wear red lipstick, was well-received and garnered support from women representative of all complexions. Washington’s work was empowering and seemingly demonstrated that she had healthy self-esteem and was happy. She described herself as “strong, empowered, and classy” in a 2013 interview with Jane Thang Productions, LLC. Washington’s words to Jane also suggested that she was positive, com/passionate, humble, and confident. Nevertheless, The Root reported that Washington experienced depression after the death of her mother. Most of us that followed FBG considered Washington a representation of strength; however, we did not know her pain. And whatever pain Washington was experiencing in her life was debilitating and resulted in her taking her own life.

My text to my friend indicated that I was “fighting depression”, and I was. Like Ali [Laila, of course] against her fiercest opponent, I came out swinging because I know depression. I’ve experienced it. It takes on different forms for all of us, but I know what depression looks and feels like for me. My depression sleeps and cries. I sleep when I am not tired and cry when I can’t fathom a reason for the tears. For other women, depression might overcompensate. It’s masked by endless smiles and being the life of the party. For others, depression is hungry and then resentful. These women might binge eat and purge frequently. No matter how depression is conceptualized, it is important that we encourage our sisters to recognize it and seek help for it. Seeking help from a qualified mental health professional is strongly encouraged! It is also important to note that there is a difference between experiencing depressive symptoms and being diagnosed clinically diagnosed with depression. Yesterday’s bout with depression was actually a bout with depressive symptoms. Clinical depression takes many forms and is determined by the duration and severity of the symptoms. The National Institutes of Mental Health (2011) notes that depression can be diagnosed as Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymic Disorder, Minor Depression and Bipolar Disorder

Finding accurate statistics to demonstrate how depression impacts Black women is extremely difficult. Hunn and Craig (2009) suggested that rates of depression in Black women are underestimated and under-reported. These authors also suggested that an attributing factor here is African Americans’ John Henryism, which is “a coping mechanism used by African Americans: overcoming obstacles with hard work and determination at the expense of mental and physical well-being” (p. 85). Other contributing factors are cultural socialization and nondisclosure.

Black women are culturally socialized to personify the Strong Black Woman (SBW). In many ways a myth and reality, the danger of the SBW socialization is that being strong is often equated to absorbing repeated devaluation of our minds, bodies, and spirits – and doing so without demonstrating any physical, mental, or emotional pain. We are not allowed to cry because crying is a symptom of vulnerability. We are not allowed to be upset or mad because those characteristics confirm the dominant culture’s construction of Black women as the Angry Black Bitch. We are not allowed to express or demonstrate any emotion or symptom that could be perceived as antithetical to our strength. We must wear the masks.

Nondisclosure is also part of our cultural socialization. We don’t tell everybody our business. And in many instances, we don’t even tell those that are closest to us. This silence can have dire consequences for us. In her book Silencing the  Self: Women and Depression (1991), psychologist Dana Jack maintained that self-silencing can be positive when women make a choice to maintain our silence regarding various issues. However, self-silencing challenges women and often facilitates depression when we are silent due to oppression or the perception that we don’t have a choice. When social, political or cultural oppression stifles our voices and prevents us from “talking back” (hooks, 1989) or truth-telling, our mental health suffers.  

Recently, I’ve been talking to Black women at different stages in their lives. Our conversations center on various topics, but each one has mentioned that being perceived as vulnerable is a site of anxiety. For example, after discussing a loss, one woman said to me, “I cried about this. Is it okay that I cried? Does that make me weak?” In addition, each of them has identified ways that her silence is imposed because of oppression or perceived lack of choice. Another woman discussed her experiences with sexual abuse and explained, “I couldn’t tell anyone. They would have judged me. Women in my family are strong.” Both women indicated that their tears and truth-telling would be contradictory to the alleged strength that Black women are supposed to embody. These statements suggest that many of us are in need of healing.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Centers for Disease Control (2010) reported that suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and was committed mostly by White males. Thus, stories of suicide by Black women are rare. However, we are dying in other ways and are in need what bell hooks (2005) describes as “self-recovery”. Specifically, she wrote:

Many black women in the United States are brokenhearted. They walk around in daily life carrying so much hurt, feeling wasted, yet pretending in every area of their life that everything is under control. It hurts to pretend. It hurts to live with lies. The time has come for black women to attend to that hurt. (p. 19)

Of course, it is not at all my intention to suggest that the Black woman experience is riddled with victimization, powerlessness, and essentialist notions of the SBW that render us all depressed and downtrodden. Instead, it is the my intention to confirm that we are strong, resilient and resistant to the many ways that others attempt to pathologize Black womanhood. However, being on point all the time without caring for ourselves depletes our energies and robs our spirits. Therefore, it is time for us to attend to ourselves and to one another. We must engage in dialogue with our sisters that inspire us “To give voice to silenced spaces as an act of resistance” (Dilliard, 2006, p. 19). We must fight depression and its symptoms whenever we can. We must speak. We must write. We must support. We must feel. We must process. And we must understand that all of these efforts, in no way, compromise our strength.

References

Dilliard, C. B. (2006). On spiritual strivings: Transforming an African American Woman’s academic life. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

hooks, b. (2005). Sisters of the yam: Black women and self-recovery. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

hooks, b. (1989). Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking black. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.  

Hunn, V. L., & Craig, C. D. (2009). Depression, social cultural factors, and African American women. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 37, 83-93.

Jack, D. C. (1991). Silencing the self: Women and depression. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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