As two Black women, we grew up with a lot of stigmas about taking care of our mental health. It’s normal for Black women to rely on our families or friend groups to stay strong. We also found solace in our places of worship, our partners, and ourselves. But we did not go to therapists. It never felt like therapy was for us.
Growing up, therapy was not a priority if there wasn’t something explicitly wrong ― and as two high-achieving young Black women, to the world, we were “fine.” Culturally, therapy was not championed if there wasn’t a specific mental issue or diagnosis. Now that we are older, we’ve learned that mental wellness should always be a priority, especially since our experience in society as Black women warrants it.
These stigmas are starting to change. But Black women like us still face high hurdles when we do decide to seek mental health care services. And that, too, is something that needs to change.
The stress of COVID-19 and America’s latest efforts to reckon with systemic racism have thrown Black women’s mental health into a new light. Black women are speaking up about their vulnerabilities and the need to set boundaries to protect our mental health. We’re seeing the beginnings of a new norm that pushes back on the “strong Black woman” stereotype, and makes room for our humanity.
Successful Black athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have spoken out about the challenges of managing their mental health on tour. In March, Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle also illuminated the importance of mental health. Even Beyoncé has spoken this year about taking steps to protect her sanity.
In fact, both of us have sought therapy for one reason or another in recent years. We know that Black women and women of color face struggles that are unique to our identities, and that frankly can be better understood by therapists and mental health clinicians with the same identities.
In our own cases, our issues have included unpacking trauma from experiencing sexism at church without losing one’s faith in God ― one of us needed a Black woman Christian therapist for this ― and going to couple’s counseling with one’s partner to unpack issues around masculinity and Blackness.
What about coming to terms with the daily manifestations of racism one encounters as a Black woman? Managing the pressure of feeling like we aren’t allowed to fail at work? We’ve needed to talk about these issues with somebody who gets it.
Black women aren’t a monolith. We’re multifaceted. But we do all experience racism, sexism and the intersections between the two, as well as microaggressions and other cultural and generational ups and downs that are unique to Black women.
When you think about baring your soul to someone and getting help with how you process your experiences, having somebody who “gets it” can really help. It also helps take pressure off your social network to not have to rely on your friends all the time to process the complicated stuff. It’s where seeking a professional’s help can be invaluable.
The problem is that when Black women do overcome the stigma of seeking support, there’s a dearth of culturally competent providers. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that only 2% of the 41,000 psychiatrists in the United States are Black. That’s just over 800 Black psychiatrists to serve a population of 42 million Black people, or one Black psychiatrist for every 52,500 Black people.
In other words, picture a football stadium full of people, all of them depending on one person for their well-being. It’s not sustainable.
There are also money concerns. And many Black women have told us they simply don’t know where to start their search. We’ve also heard from Black women who’ve found a Black therapist, gone in, had a session and paid out of pocket because the therapist wasn’t in their insurance network. We’ve heard from therapists who tried to get in-network with their patients’ health plans, only to have the networks refuse to admit them because they already had “too many providers” in the area. The thing is, those other therapists most likely weren’t Black.
As a result, even patients who manage to meet with culturally competent therapists can end up saying, “That was amazing, but there’s no way I can continue to come see you.”
As you can see, the whole process of seeking out a therapist as a Black woman is onerous and intimidating. Yet the problem is urgent. Black women are more likely than white women to report feeling sad and hopeless, according to studies. And Black adults who need mental health support get it much less often than white adults.
We were successful in getting therapy that worked for us because we were relentless in seeking out the specific support that we needed, and we were privileged to have the resources to follow through (e.g. insurance, time to take off work, money to afford our co-payments). But it still took time and legwork. If you’re already in crisis, just thinking about having to do that tremendous amount of work can be exhausting and anxiety-inducing.
Everyone should have the ability to connect with providers who can best meet their needs. That includes having easy access to a culturally sensitive and competent provider who understands and respects them.
We want to reduce the number of barriers that Black women face when they decide to seek therapy, so they don’t have to learn the same lessons we did. We want Black women to be able to easily access mental health services where they feel seen, heard and understood.
Ashlee Wisdom and Eddwina Bright are co-founders of Health in Her Hue, a digital platform connecting Black women and women of color to culturally competent health care providers, health content and community.