What Older Black Women Can Teach Us About Coping with Mental Health Struggles
At the end of 2018, the Sistahs, Sexuality, and Mental Health Well-Being Project published some startling news: among one group of 45 older Black women in the U.S., many were found to engage in high-risk sexual behaviours because of self-esteem issues, loneliness, and depression. This raises the question of how many other elderly Black women may be struggling with their mental health in silence.
A study in 2013 also found that 13 older Black women did not see the need to seek professional help for depression, but rather coped through resilience and religious practices. These women just saw depression as a normal reaction to certain occurrences in life, highlighting one of the negative results of the “strong Black woman” trope that has been unfairly foisted upon one of the most overburdened demographics worldwide.
These two studies emphasize just some of the many reasons we need to facilitate a discussion about mental health among older Black women. In doing so, we may also glean wisdom from our elders that will help younger Black women navigate their own mental health. In a bid to tap into this wisdom and expand the conversation, I surveyed seven Black women, 45 years of age and older, living in Canada, the U.S., and the UK.
The women I surveyed self-identified as Dutch, African-Dutch, Afro-Caribbean, and African American. Four had been medically diagnosed with a mental illness, two had not yet been medically diagnosed, and one had no mental illness herself but supported someone else who did. In addition, three of the women living with mental illness themselves were also caring for or supporting another person with mental illness.
The diagnoses in the group included anxiety, depression, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), seasonal affective disorder (SAD), panic disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and self-harming. Everyone but the woman with no mental illness herself indicated at least two overlapping illnesses. The entire group had received help in the past, either for themselves or for their loved ones living with mental illness, and offered information on how to cope with mental illness based on their lived experiences.
Strategies for Coping
The women’s coping strategies fell into four categories: therapy, self-care routines, medication, and a support community. When I asked about some of the actions they had taken to cope with mental illness, I could almost feel the increased energy in their responses.
“The practice of yoga, art therapy, and creativity in many different forms have helped me a great deal,” said one woman.
“From 2015 until now I’ve joined food-growing projects,” said another.
Still, another cited daily and weekly self-care routines as a coping strategy.
Perhaps because of my own history with mental illness and the empowerment I continue to experience as I seek my own healing, I felt proud of these women as they continued to share what helped them:
“Supportive group workshops, patient forums, and online skills learning.”
“A support community to help each other with bad days … also a sense of no judgment, allowing you to talk through times of need.”
“Weekly therapy; daily medication.”
The point about medication was a personal one for me, as I struggled for years to admit that it might be something I would eventually need. I have been on medication for the past two years with no regrets.
Some of the best coping strategies were person-specific. For example, one of the women stated that she was “still working through the most useful type of mental health support,” as she had “only recently in the past few years signed up for support, and so far it has been very challenging.”
Additionally, certain barriers to coping were raised, such as therapy taking place only once a month and medication sometimes clouding a person’s emotions, illustrating the need for increasing access to mental health support systems and improving medication regimens for those experiencing problems with their current medications.
The women in the group raised a number of ideas pertaining to how society can destigmatize mental illness and the conversations surrounding it, including suggestions to do the following:
“Talk about anxiety just like we talk about diabetes.”
Host “reality-check co-production workshops” to let people know that mental illness is something many people struggle with.
“Educate the public, and make [mental health] a regular course in schools from early childhood on and have more treatment programs in schools, clinics, churches, etc.”
Have “discussions and policies with/for people going through a day/time/period/life of struggle who want or need treatment, and yet job security keeps them from opening up and seeking help.”
Another suggestion that I could personally identify with was that “religious institutions should commit to talking about mental illness and not equating mental illness with a lack of faith.” In addition, the women felt that we need to “separate crime and mental illness” because the news media often falsely conflate the two.
They also suggested that societies should prioritize culture-focused therapy. This is important in light of how many Black women have expressed their desire to consult with Black therapists, who will likely have a greater level of understanding of their identity.
Speaking from Experience
Finally, when asked what they would tell younger Black women struggling with mental health issues, the women gave the following advice:
“Be gentle and kind to yourself. Take time to learn as much as possible to understand the disorder, get the necessary professional help, and put together a tool kit as part of your coping techniques.”
“Make sure to surround yourself with people who help to nourish and support you.”
“When possible, take time out to immerse yourself in Mother Nature … absorb her beauty. She is always available to help you quiet your mind and soothe you.”
“Seek out help and know that you are worth the effort.”
I would personally add that you shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge that you may live with your disorder your whole life—this does not make your life in any way less valuable than anyone else’s.
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