Strong Black Women and Suicide

depression road sign

Because only white people suffer from depression. Only white people commit suicide. Black women are strong. Black women are not human. And this is a LIE.  -Christelyn Karazin

The sudden death of For Brown Girls creator Karyn Washington, stunned friends, followers, and fans alike. Washington, who was only 22 years old, died of an apparent suicide on April 8th. Washington founded the blog For Brown Girls in 2011 with the hopes of inspiring women with darker skin tones to appreciate and love both their inner and outer beauty, as well as to share stories of “colorism.” Washington’s words and ideas soon grew into a social movement, where groups of women would not only get together and talk about their experiences of being marginalized, but also worked to create and promote change. Washington was also known for her “Dark Skin, Red Lip” project, which, in response to a comment that women of color should stay away from lipstick shades reserved for fair skinned women, sought to empower Black women and promote confidence and self-love, all while abolishing stereotypical beauty standards.

Amidst the success of her organization and projects, close friends reported Washington was suffering from depression and other mental illness, which was heavily influenced by her mother’s passing in 2013. There was initially much speculation and controversy over the nature of Washington’s death, as it seemed contradictory that someone who was an inspiration and a symbol of hope to many would take her own life. However, Christelyn Karazin, author at Beyond Black and White, writes:

 This is often par for the course with black women, who often shoulder so much burden (one of the only things the community will give us kudos for, the quintessential ‘struggle’) and to admit any weakness of the mind and body is to be considered defective. Vulnerability is not allowed. Tears are discouraged. Victims are incessantly blamed. We are hard on our women, and suffer as a result.

Often referred to as the “Black Superwoman Syndrome” or the “Strong Black Woman,” this perpetual “got-it-togetherness” has serious implications for the mental health of African American women.

The Superwoman schema developed in part to counteract negative societal characterizations of African American women, such as “Mammy”, “Jezebel”, and “Welfare Queen”, and also served the function of highlighting positive attributes that prevailed among both oppression and adversity (Woods-Giscombé, 2010). Historically, the context of African American women’s lives has been one subject to the climate of racism, race- and gender-based oppression, disenfranchisement, and limited resources. Out of economic and social necessity, African American women were essentially forced to take on the simultaneous roles of mother, nurturer, and breadwinner. From this perspective, to be a “Superwoman” meant to survive. While there are aspects of the Superwoman schema that act as assets, the role can be one of a double edged sword, and can also present vulnerabilities.

In a qualitative study conducted on the Superwoman schema that examined African American women’s views on stress, strength, and health, participants characterized the Superwoman role with respect to five major topic areas: obligation to manifest strength, obligation to suppress emotions, resistance to being vulnerable or dependent, determination to succeed despite limited resources, and obligation to help others. While there were perceived benefits of the Superwoman role such as the preservation of self and survival, preservation of the African-American family, and preservation of the African- American community, there were also many perceived liabilities.

One of the major groups of perceived liabilities of the Superwoman role was the ‘embodiment of stress.’ Embodiment was described in relation to Krieger’s (2005) concept of embodiment which contends that “bodies tell stories.” Many of the African American women in the sample connected undesirable health symptoms and stress in the context of the Superwoman role. A range of health issues were discussed such as migraines, hair loss, panic attacks, weight gain, and depression.

These findings are in contrast to many cultural assumptions (i.e the “myth” of black suicide) that mental illness is not as prevalent within the African American community because rates of suicide are traditionally lower among African Americans. However, as a racial minority, African Americans are disproportionately affected by race-based discrimination, and research has shown a positive correlation between discrimination and poor mental health (Warren, 1997). Similarly, risk factors associated with discrimination such as psychic stress, hopelessness, and trauma, were all found to contribute to suicidality. Specifically, African American women, with the “double jeopardy” status of being a racial minority and female, puts them at a higher risk for the development of depression (Warren, 1997). While the overall rates may be lower for African Americans, suicide does exist, and the overall prevalence of serious mental illness in African Americans is roughly equivalent to that of Caucasians (Neighbors, Musick, & Williams, 1998).

Not only has the myth of black suicide been statistically disproven, but African Americans are dying silently as a consequence of underutilization of mental health services. Alvidrez (1999), in her study of ethnic variations in mental health attitudes and service use, found that availability and accessibility of services contribute to differences in utilization across groups. Previous research has shown that low socioeconomic status ethnic minorities tend to perceive more barriers (e.g. lack of insurance, time, and transportation) to using services.However, in comparing similar access to services across groups, African Americans with insurance were found to still be less likely than European Americans with identical coverage to utilize outpatient mental health services (Alvidrez, 1999). Snowden (2001) speculates these differences may be due to characteristic coping styles as well as beliefs about and attitudes towards mental health held by many African Americans.

 In his analysis of barriers to effective mental health services for African Americans, Snowden (2001) found that lower rates of mental health service use were associated with attributing the cause of mental illness to religion or the supernatural. Findings from a coping skills questionnaire identified 85% of African Americans as either “fairly religious” or “very religious,” and dictated the most common coping skill was prayer, with 78% of African Americans praying at least once daily. While some research has identified positives associated with religion and prayer, namely the resulting social support and community, some members of the African American community have condemned a culture quick to “pray away” any signs of mental illness. Many are critical of a community that as a whole is less receptive to the notion of mental health services, thus limiting their exposure to the experience and its potential benefits. As Karazin explains:

 When your community tells you that you’re better off praying than seeking the advice of medical professionals and medication, you feel shame when you feel your mind is breaking. There is no safe place. To admit to any mental frailty is to invite scorn and mockery, accusations of acting white.

This notion can be especially detrimental given research shows that familiarity with professional counseling services plays a huge role in whether one will actually make an appointment with a mental health professional (Thurston & Phares, 2008).

Beliefs about the causes of mental illness have also been found to influence the use of mental health services. Alvidrez (1999) found that a common belief among African Americans involved attributing mental illness to lack of moderation or willpower and weakness of character. These views of mental illness were found to contribute to a higher reluctance of individuals to seek formal help for their problems. Similarly, in terms of the utilization of services, people who view mental illness as highly stigmatizing are not likely to seek out professional help. While stigma against mental health remains universal, in a comparison study of college students, researchers found that in relation to Whites, Blacks held more negative views of mental illness (Silva de Crane & Spielberger, 1981).

Many argue that these beliefs stem from the “cultural mandate of strength.” While this mandate does have positive attributes such as enhancing success with goals, assertiveness, and moral character, it also often results in a disregard for African American women’s physical and mental health, creating a dissonance between their “real self” and “ideal self.” The desire to be ‘strong’ was also found to factor into “levels of selflessness, powerlessness, and self-silencing that contributed to psychological distress and heightened risk for depression”(Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2007).

Woods-Giscombé’s (2010) findings highlighted the fact that the Superwoman/ Strong Black Woman role is important in understanding mental health in African American Women, with functional implications for clinical practice. Woods- Giscombé advocates for an embodied approach, which “moves beyond practical explanations and incorporates contextual factors emphasizing how an individual’s subjective experience influences health behaviors.” This approach would be more apt to taking into consideration cultural as well as psychosocial factors specific to the Superwoman role, such as putting other’s needs and personal health before one’s own. Woods-Giscombé argues that health care practitioners aware of the Superwoman role and its potential impact on psychological, as well as physical, health might be able to not only better understand their patient’s lived experiences, but also have an enhanced ability to implement into their clinical practice a culturally appropriate means of patient education and counseling.

An example of an already existing culturally informed intervention is the Grady Nia Project, which works to provide services and support to abused and suicidal African American women. Creators of the project worked to construct a treatment plan specific to the cultural backgrounds of its participants. The Grady Nia Project incorporates elements of Afrocentric theory, and is also influenced by Black feminism/womanism. The model emphasizes culturally relevant coping strategies such as spirituality and religious involvement, provides the opportunity to build networks for emotional support, and promotes positive health through validation. Perhaps most importantly, the Grady Nia Project addresses elements of the Superwoman schema and emphasizes creating a healthier image of strength for African American women. By addressing risk and protective factors specific to this community, the project seeks to create a culturally meaningful treatment plan and resources with which to support the women (Davis, Bethea, Rhodes, Arnette, Graves, and Harp, 2009).

The death of Karyn Washington was a reminder, amongst the extreme cultural taboo, that suicide is anything but a myth within the African American community. Shouldering the weight and the burden of the Black Superwoman Syndrome, African American women’s mental health is suffering. In addition to removing barriers to treatment, improving access to treatment, and removing general stigma associated with mental health treatment, perhaps the next most critical step for the African American community is redefining the cultural conceptualization of strength. As mental health activist Terrie Williams explains, “I think we have to redefine what strong is. Because being strong means to let the tears flow, it means to share your story because you will immeasurably transform somebody else’s life by doing so.” Strength need not be self-destructive, and this is an important lesson for all women.

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Undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Moral Communities Project **The opinions and views expressed are my own and do not reflect the official positions of The Moral Communities Project or its funders.

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2 thoughts on “Strong Black Women and Suicide

  1. I discovered this article after hearing about the young African American girl named Simone Battles who recently committed suicide. It saddens me that our black communities aren’t paying close attention to this. Prayer is not the answer….. I myself have thought about suicide on numerous occasions. Had it not been for therapy, I would have executed the plan a long time ago.

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