Superwomen with Depression: Dispelling the Black Superwoman Syndrome

We have a problem. Well let me clarify, society has a problem. It’s known as the Black Superwoman Syndrome. Until my reading of Josie Picken’s “Depression and the Black Superwoman Syndrome,” I was completely unaware of my own role in the lack of acknowledgement for the mental health issues that affect black women.

Let me start by stating this: I am a black woman who suffers from depression and anxiety. But until recently I was unable to accept this fact. My inability to acknowledge and recognize my mental health issues is deeply rooted in the Black Superwoman Syndrome. Our society emphasizes the belief that black women are inherently strong. Don’t get me wrong, we definitely are, but the problem with this belief has to do with the assumption that black women are supposed to always be strong. As a black woman I constantly feel the pressure to consistently be source of strength. This determination I thrust upon myself is a product of my environment.

I grew up surrounded by strong black women and men, but there was something about the women that fueled my aspirations. My mother for example is one of the strongest women I know. From watching my mother, I learned at an early age that she was not an emotional woman unless it related to anger. In the few moments I have seen my mother cry, I desired to resemble her strength and ability to suppress pain. She is the woman people go to for help and a wonderful example of a Black Superwoman. However, I’m sure at times that strength must have felt like a burden. When my grandmother passed, I distinctly remember my mother taking care of others while also making all of the funeral arrangements. Though she cried a few times throughout the process, they were tears the streamed down a face of resilience. My admiration for her only doubled within that moment.

With such strong and influential women in my life I began to believe that sadness and pain were a sign of weakness. I associated weakness with whiteness, specifically white women. Not only was my belief incorrect, but it was also an exemplification of my own reproduction of the reoccurring image of the black woman only being able to represent strength. I now am able to realize that to be black and a woman is to be a manifestation of two physical and psychological categories of oppression. Though I hate to admit it, this can at times be overwhelming.

I have been to a therapist three different times in my life. I have always been a huge advocate for therapy as a method for coping with mental instability, but until recently I didn’t view myself as a patient with real mental health issues. I honestly thought of therapy as an hour in which I am able to complain about my life without judgment. In the past few months I, like many black women, have suffered from depression. I refused to acknowledge it as depression for that felt like a form of weakness. My lack of acknowledgement of my depression created a distance between those closest to me and myself. To tell someone that I was depressed was much to embarrassing for me to fathom. So I hid it, which only further alienated me from others. Though I am still not fully comfortable discussing my feelings and emotions with others, I am learning that the pressure to be the strong black woman does not negate my own sadness.

With Picken’s article and many others that encourage a dialogue about mental illness within the black community, and specifically emphasize an acknowledgement of the mental health issues black women face, I believe we are moving towards acceptance. However, this acceptance and understanding cannot become a reality without a shift to view black women as not only manifestations of strength, but also as human beings. The problem is that black women aren’t viewed as vulnerable beings. This isn’t something that has recently developed, but an ideology that is embedded within our society and history. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the juxtaposition of innocent and pure Eva, the young white girl, in comparison with Eliza, the strong and determined black slave woman, exemplifies the representation of black women as always having to be indestructible. Picken’s expertly argues that, “I honestly believe we’re so accustomed to delivering the strong Black woman speech to ourselves and everyone else that we lose our ability to connect to our humanness, and thus our frailty.” She identifies that black women and society need to acknowledge black women’s humanity and vulnerability. Black women are strong, but they are also human. It is about time that we acknowledge that.

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