Societal stressors make Black women, girls prone to depression


Low-self esteem, superwoman syndrome  contribute to personal neglect

Depression is long a malady assailing females in general. There are reasons to be concerned about its specific occurrence in African American women and girls.

BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, Ph.D., L.P., CAC/BP is a board-certified diplomate/fellow in African centered/Black psychology, executive director of the African American Child Wellness Institute and founder and president of Brakins Consulting & Psychological Services.

She states, “There are multiple stressors. One set comes from external sources.” In that category fall such pressures as work, family, church and community obligations. Along with racism on top of the age-old discrimination that plagues all women, good old fashioned, timelessly enduring sexism, including, in this economic climate, women who manage to hold down a job being paid less than men.

“So, we have all those economic, social, cultural [considerations] to deal with. At the same time [there are] internal factors, which go back to the way women are socialized. When women are girls, they get dolls, something to take care of.

“Boys get trucks, baseball bats, all sorts of things [with which to] execute agency in the world. Our agency is always tied to taking care of somebody else. What happens is when [we] get to be grown, when it comes time to take care of ourselves, we’re negligent.”

Accordingly, in areas of mental health, as well as physical, the state of well-being often is not good. Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya notes, “We’ll wait before going to the doctor until we’re falling out.” Low self-esteem, she attests, is engendered by low social esteem.

“For instance, we’re taught to be a strong Black woman. [Which means] you have to work hard, be the one who carries the weight, can’t let people down. We can’t quit, can’t do it alone, but we don’t know how to ask for help.” That, she says, is what the superwoman syndrome is about.

So, how do you change this? “The strategy for changing it is to increase cross-gender dialogue among men and women about cultural expectations.” Women need to stop trying to be all things to everyone except themselves, and men need to listen and comprehend when women do say, “I can’t do this alone.” As Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya sums up, “We don’t tell [them] and a lot of men don’t listen.”

Mental health issues don’t occur in a vacuum and aren’t simply an academic concern on someone’s chalkboard. There are consequences. She notes, “A lot of times when Black women experience depression, they use drugs and alcohol, as other people do. But, they are slow to seek treatment because of the stigma or anxiety around how people will judge them.”

Tragically, the worrying about others’ perceptions can help trap one into living up to bad expectations. Specifically, being afraid to get help with addiction to crack cocaine can speed a female into a dead existence of spending her life on the corner, chasing the pipe, “especially when they don’t have alternative sources of support because they’ve been socialized not to seek help.”

One must reflect, of course, on the importance of intervening early, while women are still girls. Rekhet Si-Asar is administrator of Imhotep Science Academy with her husband Anura Si-Asar and a psychological counselor with Minneapolis Public Schools. While not a clinician, she says of her first-hand experience with young females, “Based on my past studies, past clinical and community mental health work, and current observations in the community and schools, many young African American girls and girls of African descent suffer from symptoms of depression.”

As with any medical, psychological, or social problems, early intervention is crucial. “Of course many people think this might be common sense, but the complication for the African American community is that there is low trust, fear, confusion, and uncertainty about mental health providers and services.” Left untreated, depression can become life-threatening. An obvious danger is teen suicide.

Si-Asar adds that as a result of depression that has gone unchecked, “Teens are obese, engage in unsafe sexual activities, self medicate [with chemicals, and] resort to risky behaviors that lead to other levels of interventions needed.” Said intervention can be forcible, as in running afoul of the law and, as a result, seeing an education disrupted and, quite possibly, the loss of a once- promising future.

“Our community suffers from generational trauma that has led to generations of young people who have adopted this disabling disorder to the point where the providing of basic needs for ourselves continue to be a major challenge. Generally because of the disconnect between the disabling conditions, access to proper care and understanding of the needs, this often goes undetected and even when detected many refuse to seek help. Depression in our community sits in a larger context of other physical, mental and social challenges we continue to struggle with.

“Sadly, we often don’t think some of these things are relevant when we look at contributants, but having young girls, or boys for that matter, grow up in a home or community where the anxiety level is low seems out of reach.” She adds that a serious problem is “seeing parents and trusted adults cursing, fighting, suffering from substance and other abuses, or even denigrating, cursing, physically, or emotional harming their own children.”

Rehket Si-Asar says, “It is extremely important to help young women suffering from depression earlier [rather] than later, just like it’s important to tend to any wound or illness earlier rather than later.”

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.

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