The “Angry Black Woman” stereotype is constructing it damn near impossible for Black women to get mental health care
In” I Rise ,” a series from HelloGiggles, Black females novelists examine Black women’s mental health from every angle–from what it takes to access treatment, to the exchange of trauma across generations. We hope this series arms women with information and power, and opens up more space for this important conversation to take place.
When I induced the decision to seek therapy decades ago, I had two very visceral, opposing reactions. The first was an initial explosion of excitement, an eagerness to work on myself and, hopefully, become a more attentive friend, partner, and mother. That feeling was promptly chased by a jolt of anxiety: I knew right away that I would feel more comfortable working with a Black female therapist, and I also knew that where I lived–a small Florida town with a tiny Black population of less than 3 %– would build that difficult.
The relationship between mental health and the Black community is one that is slowly evolving, but while we often talk about ancient, understandably skeptical attitudes toward therapy, we don’t talk enough about the modern roadblocks we face when we try to get help. As a Black woman, searching for therapy entails looking for a professional who is equipped with the best understanding of how our identities inform and influence our experiences. How we navigate the world is colored by both racism and sexism, and that has such a major impact on our mental health that it constructs it nearly impossible to avoid those topics during therapy. Our unique experiences must be properly contextualized and factored into our care.
“Health professionals–especially those who are treating minorities–have to be mindful that therapy is not a one-size-fits-all for them, ” said Patrice N. Douglas, a licensed matrimony and family therapist. “What works for white patients may not work for Black patients, so it is important to get as much understanding and cultural training to give the best treatment as possible.”
Part of that understanding includes having a working knowledge of our relationships with the negative stereotypes that impact us daily. Without that, we run the risk of connecting with a professional who not only lacks the culture competence, but is also potentially working under those implicit biases. For instance, the Angry Black Woman stereotype–one that maligns Black women as aggressive, hostile, and ill-tempered–is so permeating that it can greatly impact how we receive, or are sometimes denied, mental health treatment. A report published in the publication Social Work in Public Health notes that when mental health professionals fail to acquaint themselves with the stereotype, they often incorrectly cite certain symptoms, like mood swingings, irritability, or only genuine responses to persecution, as evidence of this trope.
Another generalization that works in tandem with the Angry Black Woman is the Strong Black Woman trope, which can also lead to a misjudgment of our mental health needs. Douglas elaborated:
“At periods, health professionals don’t believe how much Black girls are hurting at first, which runs for physical and mental health. Often, when they discuss the reasons why there is a requirement to services, they are often viewed as strong individuals whom instead of being consoled and helped, they are viewed as role model of strength. This in turn stops them from trying therapy and going back to maintaining everything inside.”
This does little to alleviate the existing, complex stigma surrounding mental health care in the Black community, which is informed by factors like a general lack of access to treatment and an inherent mistrust in a medical community with a dark history of experimenting on Black bodies. If you find that you’re able to overcome those barriers, you’re still left to navigate an overwhelmingly white selection of professionals. In 2013, white professionals accounted for 83.6% of all active psychologists, whereas merely 5.3% identified as Black. As we contend with such a wide and overt disparity, how can Black women hope to get the proper care we need?
Fortunately, there are resources that make it just a little easier to find the professional care that we are looking for. Therapy for Black Girls is an online wellness space founded by Dr. Joy Harden Bradford that encourages healthy attitudes about mental health care specifically within the community. There, you can find a helpful directory of Black mental health specialists, which you can search by locating and insurance.
But for those who simply can’t access a Black professional, how can the majority non-Black professional mental health community offer better care for existing and future Black female patients?
“It’s important for Black girls to feel comfortable and understood, ” Douglas explained. “When it comes to Black women, it is crucial to take your time getting to know them and their tale. If you often battle with being uncomfortable discussing combating racism and Black trauma, then it is recommended they be referred to another professional because it is going to come up. Research and study their culture so you are familiar with the resistance of why they often don’t seek treatment.”
And, of course, take stock of the existing stereotypes that hinder our ability to seek professional care and actively work to negate them in your practice. “[ Increase] the backing of Black females not having to be superheroes ,” said Douglas.” Speak to the[ notion of]’ It’s okay to not be okay’ so that they are more comfortable trying help with their emotional well-being.”
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