The Superwoman Syndrome: Black Women and Depression Part 2

ethnic-black-woman-crying

The mental health of Black women is in turmoil because of the “Superwoman Syndrome.” Historically this title has served as a positive description of the Black woman who was subjected to inequality in the workplace, blatant or subjective racism, the loss of their children, oppression and limited economic resources. Despite all the obstacles, life had to continue through the harsh social conditions.  Black women had to resume their duties as mother, employee, confidant, nurturer, and breadwinner.  The superwoman managed without the room for vulnerability.  She is strong, doesn’t have any time to express feelings and her needs, wants, and desires go unnoticed. Although the superwoman has been a blessing because she has had the ability to pull her family through difficult times with so much grace and dignity, but it has proven to be a curse too.

I am a product of a single mother who was raising three children.  She worked two jobs, my brothers were very involved in sports and I participated in dance, piano and led a very active social life.  After working and running all over the town to get us to where we needed to be, she still made sure we had dinner, combed my hair, washed uniforms and leotards, checked homework and made sure we had all we needed for the next day.  She went to games, recitals and fixed leaking faucets. There would be days when I would come home from school, the entire house would be spotless and she had worked a 12 hour shift the night before.  My mom was, and still is the epitome of a superwoman but she suffered in silence from depression.  I didn’t understand the sadness, the silence and the inability to get out of bed when I was a kid.  She would fight through it because that is what she was taught to do.  Although we always had more than what we needed, she suffered.  She probably felt that she couldn’t come forward and say, “I am not feeling well.  I am having a tough time getting out of bed in the morning.  I can’t stabilize my mood.”  If she did, do you think that she would have received any support and encouragement from family and friends?  Or is it a possibility that our family and her friends would have questioned her ability to deal with life because historically, Black women don’t feel.  We cope.  Eventually the vulnerability creeps in and the exterior surface starts to crack, instead of offering loving words, support and encouragement, we have the tendency to “go in.”  We ridicule.  We say, “She’s crazy.”  Depression can impact anyone.  Depression happens to the people who look like they have it all together. Fear, sadness and despair are shielded from our loved ones and the world.  Those feelings create a group of women who are lacking emotional instability.  As for my own mom, she was able to speak out, eventually and get the therapies that she needed.  For that, she will always be my hero.

If Black women feel as if the will be viewed as docile and weak if they get help to battle depression, how can we get the help we need?  The attitudes about depression in our community will continue to be a barrier in receiving treatment.  Truly understanding depression will help remove the stigma that surrounds the illness.  Understanding that depression is an illness and not just a bag of unstable emotions, will develop a new and progressive way of thinking, which would be depression being medically treated like any other health problem.

Depression affects 17-20 million Americans each year.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that Black Americans experience higher rates of depression compared to White Americans.  Black women experience higher rates of depression compared to the general population.

Having the access to adequate and comprehensive health care can contribute to the low rates of treatment among Black women.  Approximately 20 percent of Black Americans do not have health insurance compared to 12 percent of White Americans.  Unfortunately, Black women are more likely to have fewer economic resources and they are parenting children alone, which causes stress and contributes to poor mental health.  Having medical insurance is necessary to addressing depression.

Vulnerability is strength. It is encouraging.  Talking about depression could save someone’s life.  Let’s talk. Let’s start a positive dialogue about depression in our community so the ones who are impacted greatly will be able to get through it with our support.

Invest in our health.

Fake It Until We Make It…Black Women and Depression Part 1

Depression

When I was 19, my grandma passed after fighting several illnesses.  I took her death hard. I had never experienced heartbreak like that.  I lay on my dorm room bed and sobbed uncontrollably for hours.  Days passed, I barely ate, I couldn’t sleep and when I did sleep, I couldn’t bring myself to wake up at a reasonable time.  I didn’t care about what was happening around me because I no longer have an interest in school, my friends…myself.  After weeks of my friends trying to “pull me out of my funk,” they gave up on me.  I couldn’t blame them; they didn’t want to be around someone who was miserable and negative.  Hell, I couldn’t stand being around myself.  One day, my Resident Advisor said, “You are really torn up about the death of your grandma and I understand.  I went through the same thing when my mom passed. You should talk to someone who can help you sort through this.”  I drug myself to a counselor on campus.  I didn’t know where to start.  My grandma was dead, my grades were in the toilet and I didn’t have the desire to do anything or see anyone.  I told the counselor in training, “Everyone keeps telling me to be strong but I can’t do that.  I feel as if I am losing control of my emotions. Everyone tells me that this feeling of sadness, anxiety, misery and helplessness will pass but there are moments when I feel like I can’t breathe and crying seems like the only productive thing that I can do.  I miss my grandma.”

I couldn’t rationalize with my sadness.  A lot of people experience the death of a loved one.  I knew them.  They would be sad for a few days and then move forward with their lives.  I couldn’t.  Was I weak? What was my problem?  I knew Black women who experienced “real” issues.  Women who are clinically depressed, anxious, suffering from traumatic experiences or dealing with sexual abuse, my grandma dies and I fall apart?  The Counselor suggested seeing a therapist, immediately I told him that I couldn’t.  It didn’t have anything to do with insurance or time; I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  “People are going to judge me and think that I’m crazy,” I said.  I just needed to push forward and talk about it, occasionally, maybe.  The woman that I am now realizes that was not helpful to my emotional state.  Understand I grew up hearing about people who were crazy and how no one wanted to be around them, they were scary and needed medicine to function.  I didn’t want that to be me so I carried on and struggled in silence.

The Black community does not have the highest rates of depression in the United States but they are less likely to report their symptoms of depression to a health care provider. The stigma in the Black community is stifling, which makes it exceptionally hard to not only acknowledge that there is a problem but to actually see a professional to receive treatment.

No one wishes to suffer from depression and/or anxiety but I have seen the effects of stigma show it’s ugly horns. I have talked to white friends who speak calmly or energetically about seeing their therapist weekly and all of the great revelations they uncovered while being there.  My black friends would never let that come up in a conversation.  In the Black community, seeking the help of a mental health professional is viewed as a sign of a person who is weak and a person who lacks faith in God. Historically, Black women have placed the burden of their families and their communities upon their shoulders.  There is still the “strong black woman” fantasy.  You know the one… the Black woman is not only physically capable but she is emotionally capable, she supports her family but has the tendency to reject her own needs in order for her family to survive.  The images that might be familiar would be Florida Evans from Good Times or Mabel Thomas on What’s Happening. Those images and that mentality is emotionally killing us.  We are human beings, with feelings like everyone else.  Educating the community and providing safe environments for sharing is going to be the key in empowering Black women to speak out and feel encouraged to find resources to better serve themselves and then their loved ones will be able to understand, stand beside them, love them and support them.  Seeking help is not a sign of weakness.  People who are living their lives affected by depression cannot “snap out of it.”

How would you know that you could be depressed?  I am going to list some symptoms and if those symptoms are a part of your daily routine, check in with a doctor or community health center.

  • Persistently sad, anxious or “empty” mood, or excessive crying.
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased appetite and weight gain.
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders and chronic pain.
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Decreased energy, fatigue
  • Feelings of guilt, helplessness, hopelessness
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities, sex included
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts

After my grandma’s death, I relied on the support of my family and my friends.  I realized that I wasn’t the only one, we all missed her. It didn’t make my feelings less valid. I knew I could talk to my mom, cousins or brother about all of the great times we had with her.

I also looked into stories about other Black women who experienced challenges and how they overcame them.  Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah and Can I Get a Witness?: Black Women and Depression by Julia A. Boyd.  Those books helped a lot.

I met with a therapist for a few months.  Having a professional with an empathetic ear served me tremendously.  I was persistent that I was clinically depressed but she argued that I was sad.  I was given the freedom to just be sad without apologizing for it.  I needed that.

Last but not least, I cried.  It is good for the soul and believe me, I did my share.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any symptoms of depression, be the love and support they need.  It isn’t an easy conversation but ensure them or yourself that depression is treatable with the assistance of a health care professional.

Invest in our health, Chioko.

Sex isn’t an Usher song…Use a Condom.

Red-ribbonHIV/AIDS in the black community is an epidemic.  Blacks only make up approximately 12 percent of the United States population, yet we account for half of the HIV diagnosis.  Black women are 61 percent of all new HIV cases, among women in this country.  The harsh reality is 1 in 30 women will contract HIV at some point in her life compared to 1 in 106 Hispanic women and 1 in 526 White women.  Whoa.  Clearly there is something wrong with the way we approach gender and social equality when it comes to preventing HIV.  It is vital that we understand and acknowledge how these social and gender inequalities shape the way we think, approach, and treat this disease.

A few years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) introduced several studies about the myths and misconceptions of HIV/AIDS rates among Black women and if the high rates were traced back to “down low” black men.  The studies proved that this idea was flawed. The studies have shown there wasn’t any proof that black men were secretly having sex with men at greater rates than white men who have sex with men. The studies have also proven there wasn’t any proof that Black women were engaging in more risky sexual behaviors than White women, yet White women are not being infected with HIV at the alarming rates like Black women.  Black women do not have the access to regular and comprehensive health care like their White counterparts.  Public health practitioners have to understand the dynamics in a relationship can be very complicated.  There is a blind trust that exists even when a partner’s actions are not reasonable or respectful.  There is also a blatant fear when it comes to suggesting condoms to be included in the sexual act (“Come on baby, don’t you trust me?”)  instead of discussing sexual health in a confident manner with their partner.  I know it can be extremely uncomfortable to ask your partner about their past sexual history or even share yours but it is that specific information that needs to be shared.  It can save your life.

Promoting abstinence, as my grandma would say, “Is just not going to cut it.”  Relying on abstinence only education puts people is danger of making damaging choices.  Let’s face it, sex is going to happen.  People are sexually active, enjoying sex and talking about sex.  Sure, abstinence is an 100% effective way of stopping the spread of HIV.  Seriously, who are we kidding? Sex isn’t going to stop and who wants it to? There are other ways of protecting ourselves and reducing the risk of contracting and spreading HIV:

  • Know your status.  It is scary to be screened for HIV.  You will sit in an empty room, alone with your thoughts, thinking about all of the sexual partners you have had in the past. The thoughts will drive you crazy but knowing is worth all of that.  The test is quick and painless.  It is a simple swab of your mouth. Promise.
  • Know your status…together. Talk about HIV testing and safer sex…together.  Go to your local community health clinic or primary care physician…together and get tested…together.
  • Be informed.  Know your partner’s history.  Ask questions and lots of them.  Don’t worry about being nosey!  This is your body and you have the right to know.  Get the information about their sexual history and their current sexual practices.
  • Practice the safe sex that you discussed with your partner.  Use male or female condoms and dental dams for vaginal, anal and oral sex every…single…time.   Have protected sex, always.  Even if your partner says, “Don’t worry about it, I’m safe.” Sex isn’t an Usher song…use a condom.
  • Don’t share needles.  Drug needles is not the only type of needles to be concerned about. This includes piercing needles or tattoo needles.  In this case, sharing is not caring.

The high rates of HIV/AIDS among black women contribute to a mixture of things.  Understanding the Social Determinants of Health, which are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, is important in understanding how diseases are spread in the Black community.  The social determinants of health are more significant than any behavioral or genetic disposition.  Understanding this can assist with how we approach this epidemic.  Simply addressing only the behavioral factors increase stigma in the community, this implies that bad decisions and bad choices are the blame for one’s health outcomes.  If we change the way we think and build awareness about the political, economic and the social conditions that plague people of color, it could eliminate the stereotype of how people contract HIV/AIDS and it could change our stereotypes of people of color and their health conditions.

Black Yogis are Cool.

Black yogi

I am attempting to become a yogi.  A yogi is someone who is a practitioner of yoga and that is what I am trying to become, a practitioner of yoga.  Are there any Black Yogis out there?  Why, yes there is.  I saw a whole Tumblr page dedicated to Black Yogis.  Studies have shown approximately 2 percent of black women in the United States do yoga.  That means out of 16 million women in the United States, only 30,400 black women do yoga. Inspiring.  I have a yoga mat that I keep in my cubicle at work to attend my co-worker’s class at lunch.  On those days I hesitantly change out of my business casual wear, put on my yoga pants, my loose fitting tank top, or my Larry Bird shirt, grab my mat and make the trek to the dimmed room with soft music playing.  The environment is physically comfortable enough but for some reason, I am incredibly uncomfortable because I feel like I don’t belong but I realize I have just as much of a right to be in that class. I have the right to receive the benefits of practicing yoga.

As women of color, we can benefit a lot from yoga too. Not only does yoga improve flexibility but it makes your posture better.  Yoga builds strength, increases your blood flow, drops your blood pressure (if you have hypertension, give it a shot), makes you happier, inspires you to become a more conscious eater, lowers blood sugar, boosts your immune system, opens up your lungs to breathe better, increases self-esteem and it improves sexual function. Oh yes ladies! It benefits sexual function!  Did you know that participating in yoga can boost arousal, desire, orgasm and general sexual satisfaction?

Every week I take two yoga classes and every week I say to myself, “I am going to do this and I am going to love it.”  I walk into the class with my mat tucked underneath my arm, do a few poses, look around and realize that my poses don’t look anything like anyone else’s.  I look around the room for familiar bodies or familiar struggles but I can’t find any.  I stick it out to the end even though I am exceptionally critical of myself.  Why do I keep coming back?  I keep coming back because I made a vow to commit to the wellbeing of my body.  I want to be in tuned with my body and gain new strength.  Participating in yoga is teaching me perseverance and patience.  I keep trying to strike those poses.  There are times when I look absolutely crazy but once I get it, I got it.  Developing the art of yoga just takes time.  I have to realize that I am not going to be able to do a side plank or a Warrior II pose by attending a few classes. My mind might be set to do those poses but my body is a little further behind.  I have to wait on the flexibility and strength I am seeking.

Yoga is good for the soul as well as the body.  It is a great practice to connect with your body and spirit through the focus on breath and movement.  It gets uncomfortable when it becomes less about a spiritual experience and more about people in class feeling that it is for the thin bodied.  Yoga has steered into the realm of becoming obsessed with a slim, toned body.  When someone says, “She has a yoga body” or “He has a yoga body” what image do you see in your mind?  Have you ever seen the cover of a yoga magazine?  Those images don’t look anything like me.  But, that is okay.  There are several ways to get over that.  You can find YouTube videos and do yoga in the privacy of your own home, or find a class that is welcoming to all body types, a place where people won’t stare at you like you are wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress with pity in their eyes.  My favorite option is to grab some friends and go to a class with them.  What is more welcoming than your supportive friends?

Black women are not the face of yoga but that doesn’t mean that we are not meant for it.  Honestly, classes can be expensive.  The average Black person’s income is less than a White person’s income.  This factor can make attending a yoga class more difficult.  There are yoga studios that offer scholarships to people who cannot afford the classes. There are community centers who offer yoga classes for free or a low cost.  Yoga is about service.  Most studios don’t discourage students because of the inability to pay.

Yoga is empowering.  Everyone should have the opportunity to participate and feel welcomed.  It should be inclusive and affordable for all.  I know, I know…the prices can be a little insane.  The YouTube videos are free and a lot of communities offer classes in the park for free.  I feel good taking yoga.  After a class, I feel enlightened, aligned and the stress of work, my son’s activities, the grocery list and those bills melt away for a while. Life gets stressful. Long term stress contributes to serious health problems.  Stress disrupts the systems in your body.  Chronic stress can cause chronic illnesses and we don’t need that in our life.  So grab your mat, your yoga pants, water, a towel, concentrate on your breathing and start stretching.

Invest in our health.

Health Disparities and Women of Color

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The severe impact of health disparities on the lives of black women is a real experience.  Many of us have experienced the death of our grandmothers, our mothers, our aunts, our sisters and our friends to preventable illnesses.  My own grandma, Juliette, lost her life to renal failure. Studies have shown that women of color are disproportionately more likely, than white women, to receive a lower quality of health care even when they have the same insurance status and the same health issues. Why is that? How is that possible? How can our communities better support women of color who experience challenges in accessing quality heath care services, transportation, lack of understanding, preventive care, past experiences with the health care system and the lack of cultural competency in health care? Black women are 7 percent of the United States population but continue to dominate in categories of chronic disease and illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, cancers, stroke, obesity, hypertension, and reproductive disorders.  Black women are more likely to die from chronic illnesses, being obese or overweight, or being diagnosed with HIV.

  • Black women have higher breast cancer death rates than white women.
  • Asian women are less likely than white women to receive a pap smear.
  • Hispanic women are more likely than non-Hispanic white women to be diagnosed with cervical cancer at an advanced stage.
  • Rates of hospital admissions for lower extremity amputations due to uncontrolled diabetes is higher for Black women than white women.
  • New AIDS cases are more prevalent in Black and Hispanic women.
  • Black women receive treatment for depression less frequently than white women.

My grandma was diagnosed with diabetes in her mid forties.  Her circle of friends would refer to the illness as simply “having the sugar.”  At the time of her diagnosis, her internal specialist informed her that as long as she took her pills daily, she would be able to carry on with her typical, daily life.  My grandma took her pills faithfully but continued eating the way that she was accustomed to.  Soon those daily pills became twice a day insulin shots with constant finger sticks in order to check her glucose for monitoring.  Her kidneys began to shut down.  Grandma had to go to kidney dialysis three times a week.  Her insulin refused to stabilize and she got sicker.  I watched my grandmother go from a vibrant, confident, talkative and happy woman to a woman who was withdrawn, unsure, sad and terribly ill.  One day, I drove over an hour to come and visit her in the hospital.  The doctors found fluid on her lungs and made arrangements for surgery.  She had tears in her eyes, I grabbed her hand, we held onto each other for a while without saying anything at all.  After minutes pass, she says, “Teetah (her nickname for me), I am so tired and I am scared.”  My grandma passed a few weeks later at the age of 62.  She was young and had so much life to live. Losing a grandmother or anyone you love is hard.  Losing my grandmother to a disease that could have been managed more properly affected me greatly. This shouldn’t happen but surprisingly it does, often.  Eliminating health disparities means to concentrate on the social determinants of health that affect the health.  Why are women of color losing these battles to chronic illnesses?  What is it about the environment that contributes to ability to manage these health conditions?  The implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act can play an essential role in eliminating health disparities and improving health in our communities. Our country has been plagued with racial gaps in our health care system.  These gaps inspired the many anti-discrimination laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the beginning of the Head Start program, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the Social Security Act of 1965 which created Medicare and Medicaid and withheld federal funds from segregated hospitals.  The Social Security Act increased federal funding for infant and maternal care programs.  By the 1980s the health care gap was widening again.  In 1985, the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services’ task force on Black and Minority Health issued a report that agreed that there were differences between people of color and the white population.  In 2002, a report that was commissioned by Congress to study the racial disparities in health care confirmed unequal treatment of minority populations in the health system. I would love to see more women of color contributing to health care discussions and becoming policymakers because we are disproportionately affected by major health crises.  It isn’t fair but hope is not lost.  The Juliette Health Organization will lead the way of Black women consciously choosing to be healthier and thrive.  We will no longer suffer from diseases that are preventable.  We will invest in ourselves and we will invest in each other.

Hello world!

Welcome to The Juliette Health Organization’s (JHO) blog!  The JHO is in honor of my grandmother, Juliette who passed away at the age of 62. My grandma suffered from many chronic illnesses including hypertension, diabetes, renal failure and heart disease. The JHO will provide comprehensive health education to women of color and training to health care professionals.  ! I am so excited and I would be thrilled if all of you would follow this blog and share it with others!

Investing in our health, Chioko Grevious