Black women have a sense of fear and distrust of medical institutions. This is a result of historical medical experiments in which black women were the target, as well as stereotypes, like the “Strong black Women,” that discourage many women from treatment, as through possessing strength is a sign of emotional stability. Aside from these major issues, there is also a lack of support and cultural sensitivity in the black community surrounding mental health treatment. The denial of mental health illnesses in the United States is particularly prevalent among African-American women. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, black women are more likely to suffer from stress, having a 50 percent rate of depression. However, only seven percent of those women with mental illness seek treatment. Why are black women reluctant to pursue mental healthcare? Though so many issues arise, there are solutions to these problems.
I am heartbroken by the disinclination of black women to seek mental health care. Because of historical events that targeted black women, negative stereotypes and lack of support, black women are forced to shy away from mental health treatment and institutions. This is not fair. For a race to continually be oppressed, and unable to seek help when they need it the most, is extremely sad and pleads for change.
Utilization of black bodies for scientific and medical breakthrough shaped black women’s views of the medical professions and institutions. During the slavery era, when African-Americans were recognized as being only three-fifths of a man, they were secretly used as “guinea pigs” for medical experimentation. Father of gynecology J. Marion Sims conducted experiments on enslaved women in order to treat vesico-vaginal fistula without anesthesia because he believed that the operations were not painful enough. In 1814, 20-year-old black woman Sara Baartman was put on display across Europe as part of a freak show. Sara was referred to as “Hottentot Venus,” a now racial term that was then used to refer to Khoi people. After her death, researchers kept her sexual organs and her brain and put them on display at the Musee de I’Homme in Paris. These unethical, dangerous and insensitive cases play a major role in the reluctance of black women to seek medical attention. Doctors didn’t show sympathy towards black women and their disorders which made them feel as if they shouldn’t either. Because of the lack of care of using blacks as an experimental tool, black women have gained major fear and distrust towards health institutions.
Mental illness often resulted in a more inhumane lifestyle, including beatings and abuse, which forced slaves to hide their issues. Overtime, strength became equated with survival and weakness meant you might not survive. This brings up the topic of the negative stereotype, “Strong black Woman.” The “Strong black woman” stereotype creates the idea of black women being perpetually strong and uniquely indestructible. It is the perception that black women are resilient, self-contained and self-sacrificing. In a society that finds little to praise in black women, it appears to be a good thing, in which it supposedly provides black women with the protection and confidence against stress and negativity. The stereotype suggests that despite challenges, black women are superhuman. But it is a stereotype that is just as dangerous as those it is meant to replace. It limits black women’s ability to cope healthfully which exacerbates the negative mental health outcome of stress. Black women feel that they are pushed to place other’s needs before their own and that asking for assistance reveals a form of weakness. Black women are not only told, but forced to be strong, so when they break down or show that they have some form of mental illness, they feel as though they have failed at their responsibilities. Being a strong black woman allows little space for being vulnerable, seeking support and otherwise being fully human. This stereotype is negative and obstructive because it conveys that black women have built-in capacities to deal with all manner of hardship without breaking down mentally or physically. It is dangerous and dehumanizing to have such a narrow view of the black woman as a source of support while expecting her not to need any herself. With this type of pressure, one is only bound for breakage.
Aside from black women struggling through distrust and stereotypes, there is less compassion in the black community toward mental illness. This rings true simply because of the history of being an oppressed race and expectations of “just dealing with it.” Because of the history of subjugation, openly suffering from mental illness is taboo, which only puts more pressure and stress on black women who are afflicted with mental illness. They are forced to deal with societal minority issues, forced to hold it in and never gain support from their own people. Black communities normalize what may be a traumatic reaction. They possess the idea that due to their long history of overcoming racism and discrimination, black women have the ability to muster through adversity. They believe that an individual develops depression and other mental health disorders due to having a weak mind, poor health, troubled spirit and a lack of self-love. However, I disagree. Beliefs in the black community about mental illness, including stigma related to mental illness, are prevalent in a society whether or not a black woman is having issues with the disorder. These beliefs have the potential to affect how she responds to symptoms. Does she seek help?
There are ways to encourage black women to seek mental health. Trust as a mechanism for inclusion of black women should be considered by mental health institutions. Though this may come across as an individual issue, black women should not have to correct a problem that they did not create. We must conduct open dialogues about past experiments of minority participants for medical studies. It is often said that the first step to solving a problem is admitting there is a problem; therefore, talking about the situation would show sympathetic attitudes toward the feelings of black women. Involvement with religious practices can also be very beneficial. Blacks feel that because their ancestors used religion to help deal with historical hardships, they should as well. This solution, I believe, would open awareness to mental disabilities in black communities as well as integrate religion into the treatment of mental health. However, while Black women may not seek support from their communities, having support from friends is more beneficial than it seems.
Although African-American women are burdened by mental illness, their use of mental health services is low. There are various negative factors that contribute to this reluctant behavior. The negative stereotype of being a strong black woman, the use of black women for scientific and medical research and the lack of support and sensitivity from black communities all negatively affect the feelings and actions of black women. However, with new solutions to these problems, there could potentially be a change in the lack of black women seeking treatment from mental health institutions.
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
Sabrina Leung ‘18 is the Digital Editor majoring in International Relations-Political Science with a minor in History. She is best reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @sabrinatzleung on Twitter.