Why you should care
Loneliness makes African American women particularly susceptible to depression and anxiety.
Dr. Biko A. Sankofa, a developmental psychologist and a founding partner of Vital TMS Therapy for Depression in Washington, D.C., recalls being in graduate school with 15 female classmates who worried that their options for life partners would narrow the longer they stayed in school. Earning more degrees meant having less time to marry and start a family. That alone, Sankofa says, was a trigger for anxiety and, sometimes, depression.
“My female colleagues were afraid that they’d be alone — that they wouldn’t find a partner of equal academic status,” he says. “While African American women are getting academic achievements at a higher rate than [African American] men, they feel like they end up having fewer options, which could lead to some degree of loneliness.”
Loneliness, he clarified, can have little to do with being in physical proximity to someone. But research suggests that for African American women, it can lead to much larger issues. In fact, according to a study published last year:
Loneliness sparks greater anxiety and depression among African American women than it does among men.
The findings revealed in ”Treating Depression, Anxiety, and Stress in Ethnic and Racial Groups” were the culmination of a five-year study of 168 African American college students at the University of Michigan. There’s little research done on the intersection of mental health, gender and race, explains the report’s author, Dr. Edward C. Chang. “There is the growing appreciation that African American women are basically a double minority,” he says. “Not only are they female, but they are African American, which means they navigate multiple and complex challenges.”
Tameka Brewington was born with a keen eye for emotional trauma, particularly among African American women. Now a dually licensed psychotherapist who has been working in mental health and substance abuse for the past 20 years, she remembers the behavior of her stepsister, who came to live with the family in Alabama when Brewington was 12. Unbeknown to Brewington, her new sibling had been abused by a retired schoolteacher who made it a practice to go into African American neighborhoods to take nude pictures of adolescent children.
While Brewington’s family provided a safe haven for the girl, a roof over her head and three square meals weren’t all she needed, and it showed in her behavior.
“She was just all over the place, and there was always something going on,” says Brewington. “She was promiscuous; she acted out and would get into fights. She wouldn’t do her homework, and at home, she directed [her anger] toward me because I was the oldest. She would steal one or all of my shoes … Or she would call my boyfriend … and say sexually inappropriate stuff to him.”
As to whether loneliness sparks greater anxiety and depression among African American women, Brewington says the answer is far more complex than people realize — a lesson her stepsister taught her at a young age.
“Particularly with women of color, their loneliness, anxiety and depression look very different than [they do for] women who don’t consider themselves minorities or women of color,” she explains. “Women of color are typically told by their moms, who themselves had issues with men, that they don’t necessarily need a man, but then the mom goes back and contradicts herself when the woman is not in a relationship or is not married.”
Another issue, says Dr. Janet Taylor, a psychiatrist and life coach, may be anxiety among Black women about a shrinking pool of marriageable African American partners. That said, she explains, Black men have their own sources of anxiety. “Depression and anxiety, at least as compared to women in this area, looks a lot different in men,” she says. “Men of color are worried a lot about how they are viewed. They’re worried about their masculinity, and a lot of them in the 30- and the 40-year-old range don’t necessarily know how to be in a relationship without going outside of the relationship.”
However, Chang warns against falling into stereotypical narratives about Black women’s lives. “African American females don’t often go about telling the world, ‘Hey, I’m very lonely’ and express feelings of depression and anxiety,” he says — which means there are decades of data on Black women’s mental health that may not be very accurate. Only about a quarter of America’s Black population seeks mental health care, compared to 40 percent of White Americans, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“We’ve got to have mechanisms by which African American females can pursue and obtain resources where they feel comfortable enough to be able to talk about these things so they can leverage their challenges within the group [and] in a larger society.”