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Depression, Black Superwoman Syndrome, and Suicide
5/12/2015 2:50:38 PM

By Shantella Y. Sherman, Special from the Afro-American Newspaper

She was the founder of For Brown Girls and, later, the #DarkSkinRedLip Project, as well as several online movements celebrating dark-skinned Black women.

By all accounts, she was a spirited, beautiful, trooper who inspired millions of women around the world to embrace their natural, God-given beauty.

 So when Karyn Washington’s death, at 22, was reported as a suicide, disbelief, fear, and anger spread through social media circles like a wildfire.

Fellow blogger Christelyn Karazin lamented the loss as an indictment of the Black community and its Black Superwoman Schema that promotes seeking prayer over medical intervention.

“You feel shame when you feel your mind is breaking. There is no safe place. To admit to any mental frailty is to invite scorn and mockery, accusations of acting White. Because only White people suffer from depression.

Only White people commit suicide. Black women are strong. Black women are not human. And this is a LIE,” Karazin charged.

Some soothed the wounds of their grief over Washington’s death by attaching it to the sorrow she endured in losing her mother to cancer just weeks earlier. But then Titi Cree Branch, the always smiling 45-year-old co-founder of Miss Jessie’s Curly Hair Products, reportedly ended her life, and the nation began to take note. Depression is real. African-American women, though referred to using descriptors such as “strong,” “long suffering,” and even “angry,” are more often masking overwhelming feelings of frustration, hopelessness, and fear.

A growing body of literature indicates that African-American women rely on religious beliefs and practices to cope with health problems including depression, with roughly 90.4 percent reporting their faith as a means of managing stressors. Additionally, researchers found that the low use of mental health services among Black women was coupled with high rates of premature termination from counseling.

“Many African Americans are raised with an internalized sense of connectedness to religious values, which provide a sense of purpose, power, and self-identity,” reported psychologist Madonna G. Constantine.

Prayer and religion are often cited as primary coping skills used by African-American women in dealing with personal problems and in comparison with Caucasians, African-Americans are far more likely to endorse the use of prayer and spiritual coping strategies over professional or medicinal therapies. But what happens when faith wavers?

In the case of Monica Deen*, weakened faith and an unwillingness to admit her issues to church elders – including her inability to cope – caused her to spiral almost out of control for several years. “Some issues do not belong in church – that’s what I felt,” said Deen, who found herself caught in an extramarital affair with her supervisor. “This relationship was tied to my own lack of self-esteem, which made me feel like I could not end it. I felt it would jeopardize my job and family if I did the right thing and ended it. But there was no way I would tell the church and I felt like God would not forgive me.”

In addition to the emotional turmoil Deen felt, she spent four years managing hypertension and bulimia as a result of the affair. The day she felt overwhelmed enough to plot her own death, Deen said, she found enough courage to confess to her husband.

“I stood in front of him shaking like a leaf and crying hysterically. Thank God he had enough compassion to sign me into a clinic,” Deen said. “I began talking about all of the things that I couldn’t tell anyone and the guilt and depression lifted. Everyday I acknowledge that I am only human and I give myself leeway to make mistakes and recover from them.” Researchers, including Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe, have suggested that health disparities in African-American women, including Deen’s hypertension, adverse birth outcomes, lupus, obesity, and untreated depression, can be explained by stress and coping. The Strong Black Woman / Superwoman role has been highlighted as a phenomenon influencing African-American women’s experiences and reports of stress.

“Cultural and psychological factors of the Superwoman role, such as focusing on the needs of others and making personal health a secondary or tertiary priority, might explain delays in health-seeking behaviors, limited adherence to recommendations made by health care professionals, and lower rates of screening procedures for conditions that are treatable if caught in the early stages,” Woods-Giscombe concluded.

Participants’ characterizations of the Superwoman role were grouped into five major topic areas: obligation to manifest strength, obligation to suppress emotions, resistance to being vulnerable or dependent, determination to succeed despite limited resources, and obligation to help others. Woods-Giscombe made recommendations that physicians utilize a culture-centered methodology in order to better understand the emotional needs of Black female patients. This may include more aggressive attempts to bridge the church with treatment for depression.

“Health care practitioners who are aware of the potential influence of the Superwoman role on health behaviors might have an enhanced ability to understand the lived experiences of their patients and the ability to integrate appropriate methods of patient education and counseling into their clinical practice,” she said.

Terrie Williams, public relations mogul and author of “Black Pain,” said in an interview with Tom Joyner, that the Superwoman Syndrome has caused many Black women to suffer unduly from their own unrealistic expectations.

“At some point all of us may encounter that one thing, person or event that breaks us into separate pieces; and the life we built or least portrayed can’t keep going without the other part being self-medicated,” Williams said. “That self-medication can come in the form of drugs (illegal or prescription) or alcohol, engaging in inappropriate relationships, risky sexual behavior, overeating, gambling, working, and violence. These are all symptoms, that, yes, need to be treated, but don’t get at the heart of the problem – undiagnosed and untreated depression.”

Williams, who said she had a nervous breakdown several years ago, has been a stalwart advocate for Black women seeking the help of professional therapists, who tend to hear what family and friends cannot.

“I treasure my weekly talk therapy sessions – they are my lifeline. It is an opportunity for me to speak my pain, my struggles, my gains and losses… I have learned to let the tears flow, to slow down, to seek professional help and to look for healthy ways to put my pieces back together – through exercise, proper nutrition, planned downtime and by surrounding myself with people not afraid to pull my coattails when they see something is wrong,” Williams said.

Visitor Comments

Submitted By: Thaddeus Jonn Bell MD Submitted: 5/13/2015
Thank you so much for this article. I have seen what depression can do to the life of African American men as well. So while only women are mention are it is major health disparity that exist in our community. As a friend said to me " are Black people program not to seek treatment" ? We have to reprogram our people to recognize that spiritual and medical help go hand and hand. Both are essential. tjb

Submitted By: Janne R. Middleton, RN Submitted: 5/14/2015
The article is great, it hit home in so many ways. I work in mental health and see depression every day. Although prayer helps, it has to be coupled with the medical as said by Dr. Bell. My 93 y/o mom said, "we didn't have time to be depressed." So at that time, prayer was all they had. We have to be more open to therapy and medication and know we also have to do those things that are suggested. Being depressed is an everyday job, you have to work at it everyday, some days harder than others. People that work in the mental health field sometimes are the most difficult people to treat, I know, I have been depressed for years and use my job as my therapy. Working with my patients, helping them with their depression also helps me. I have to remember that the same things I teach them, I have to do my self. Depression is real.

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