Cultural Stigma, Mental Wellness and One Black Woman’s Audacity to Heal
Culture is the learned system of shared meanings of identity and community from an exclusive group. Culture is what inspires our thinking, speaking and actions. Culture is highly influential within ethnic groups and can be inclusive and supportive or polarizing and ostracizing. Black culture has a very unique perspective of shared meanings. We have unique culture-sharing systems that were transferred through generations of American colonialism. It’s probably challenging for many Black people to determine a cohesive understanding of African-American culture because so many countries of origin, languages and traditions were severed during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Colonialism has been a huge influence on Black culture and the ways we interact within and outside of our community.
Cultural expectations of Black women seem to require enduring hardships through a faith lens, being a nurturer of loved ones and no matter what, to be grateful and keep complaints to self. Stereotypes, prejudice, racism and discrimination have impacted our culture tremendously because they determine how we see individuals and how we address personal health concerns. I was taught that my survival and success was measured by how hard I worked to achieve my goals. I never considered including the racial, socio-economic and environmental factors that slowed me down, changed and eliminated some pathways to success. Black women have a fine line to walk so as not appear over-aggressive, uneducated, lazy or hypersexual. These society-approved identities have taught Black women NO. NO it’s not ok to be vulnerable. NO it’s not ok to seek help for mental illness symptoms. And NO; in order to keep your position in social inner-circles and not appear “crazy” you better be silent and “still.” Black women learn early to suppress their natural intuition that invokes us to speak up, speak out and explore alternatives to what we’ve been taught is acceptable in our healing. Cultural indoctrination of these norms has led to Black women over-helping, resisting vulnerability and taking care of others well before taking care of self.
While experiencing emotional distress from five years of infertility that ended with an involuntary hysterectomy, I experienced painful cultural stigma based on my inability to manage my mental health conditions. My ex-husband, family and friends had no experience with recognizing symptoms of mental distress or anxiety, depression or any of my emotional dysregulation that emerged. I was hospitalized and treated inhumanely by the F-rated, predominantly Black hospital in my community. The stigma I experienced felt like shame, blame and dismissal. The isolation and deep spiritual solace I experienced somehow motivated me to seek an individual therapist at the YWCA to participate in group counseling for Black women survivors. From there, I came across warriors battling infertility with Fertility for Colored Girls (FFCG), a not-for-profit Chicago organization centered on Black women who share their infertility experiences. To begin the healing process, I had to ignore Black culture teaching Black women wildly inaccurate myths like ‘therapy is for White people’ or ‘we don’t tell our family business’ or ‘people are going to think I’m nuts’. The truth is that psychological support is not crazy or JUST for white folks. My experience in FFCG was 100% Black women facilitated and was extremely helpful to foster a sense of belonging, community and to normalize addressing trauma with women who looked like me.
Overall, committing to mental health practices to explore new ways of coping with life’s curveballs is essential as we navigate all things COVID-19. Black women have to avoid the stigma brick wall that stands in the way of cultural liberation and healing centuries of systemic racism, trauma and oppression for ourselves. Cultural stigma focused on mental illness continues to be one of the root causes of deferred self-care and unaddressed mental and physical distress. Black women need to strengthen the defiance of cultural stigma and ask themselves who benefits if I remain the same? I also challenge the idea of solely spiritual or religious solutions to address clinical issues such as post-traumatic stressors or surviving the pain of childhood abuse.
Defeating cultural stigma to start healing practices only comes with bravery, trust, vulnerability and communication. Be intentional about seeking culturally-responsive resources that fit your health experiences. Use social media and web-based tools to identify clinical and/or holistic wellness educators and healers within your local community. Connect with culturally-responsive mental health advocates like the Boris P. Henson Foundation or Taraji P. Henson’s Facebook Watch series Peace of Mind. Seek platforms with a mission to unpack and debunk harmful cultural misconceptions about Black mental health and wellness together.
And remember, be kind to yourself! Read books that promote audacity, liberation and healing. My mental health journey began three years ago and I’m just scratching the surface as I discover more about self-care, healing and emancipation from cultural chokeholds. So far, I’ve learned that the only voice that really matters is your own. Take Care, Sis!
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