Why you should care
African American women are taught to be strong, and they’re internalizing that strength when it comes to mental health.
Black mothers and aunties for generations have told their Black daughters that they’re beautiful, and have warned them to ignore the whispers — when the world would ridicule and objectify them for their bodies, their strength, their hair. Those little girls grow up to be strong Black women, or at least aspire to be, and their Black elders smile an approving smile.
Knowingly — but oftentimes unknowingly — the elders are trying to prepare their daughters for a world in which Black women disproportionately experience violence at home, at school, on the job and in their neighborhoods, not to mention institutionalized racism. “Be strong,” the elders say. Be a “strong Black woman,” despite the odds.
But some research indicates that, for better or worse, Black women are internalizing that strength when it comes to mental health. In fact …
Research indicates that African American lesbian and bisexual women have far lower odds of depression than their White and Latina counterparts.
That’s according to a study published in January in Archives of Sexual Behavior. The study, from Wave 3 of the Chicago Health and Life Experiences of Women study, is an 18-year, community-based longitudinal study of sexual-minority women’s health; it also found that bisexual and lesbian women are more likely to report lifetime depressive disorders than straight women, with bisexual women often faring the worst when it comes to mental health outcomes. Risk factors for depression, such as victimization in childhood and adulthood, are also more prevalent among bisexual women — though the intersection of those factors with race and sexual identity is still little studied. Previous research into general populations has found that White men are more likely to suffer depression than Black men in the face of stressful life events.
Having worked in New York for more than two decades, psychiatrist and renowned consumer health expert Dr. Janet Taylor strongly asserts that Black people, and people of color in general, have been pathologized unnecessarily. “What we know is that Black girls have higher self-esteem than White girls, and certainly higher self-esteem than Latina girls,” she explains. “So that would make sense that Black women of color would have less depression. I think we have to fight this stigma that there’s something wrong with us.”
For many, identity issues involving sexuality can be particularly trying. “There’s no question that when people like adolescents and trans individuals who are trying to acclimate have to come out to their parents, are dealing with their identity issues, that they’re really at risk of depression, and in some cases have a higher risk of suicide,” Taylor notes.
Other experts are skeptical of the findings — or at least of the methodology used. “I wonder how we are measuring or assessing depression,” says Dr. Erica Lennon, a practicing psychologist at UNC Charlotte in North Carolina. “A lot of the assessment instruments that are utilized historically were created by White people for White people … I further wonder if there is potentially a nuance about how depression shows up that it’s going to look different for somebody within the Black community versus their counterparts within the White community or the Latinx community.”
Black women may also find themselves hamstrung by the stereotype of the strong Black woman, a persistent trope that many have internalized. Studies of Black women’s mental health have found that internalization of the “strong Black woman” ideal is linked to stress, depression and binge eating. That very stereotype, though, could potentially skew the results of any study into Black women’s depression.
“I’m thinking about the women in this study and the Black-identified women — I imagine so many of them within their socialization are aware of this construct,” says Lennon. “So does that then make them less likely [than their Latinx or White counterparts] to report that things are a struggle or challenging?”