‘Growing Up, I’d Hear ‘Depression Is For White People”: 6 Black Women on Mental Health Taboos

For many Black women who struggle with their mental health, taking care of themselves is still a political act.

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Black Women on Self Care, woman paints on easel

Photo, Pexels/Matthew Henry

When Black feminist poet Audre Lorde wrote about self-care, it was a matter of survival. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” she wrote in her deeply personal collection of essays, A Burst of Light: And Other Essays. “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Lorde made that statement in 1988, but the sentiment still holds true for Black women today. In a world that pushes against us — because of both our gender and the colour of our skin — self-care is more than just a buzzword or an excuse to self-indulge; it’s a tool of active resistance.

Let’s start with the facts. Social issues like racism, sexism, poverty and unemployment directly affect our mental and physical health and can hinder the provision of effective treatment and care. Research collected and analyzed by the World Health Organization in 2011 found that discrimination, implicit and overt, can both cause and magnify poor mental and physical health. Just last year, the United Nations released a damning report that detailed Canada’s historical and contemporary practice of anti-Black discrimination. The report highlighted major concerns, including that African Canadians are disproportionately affected by race and health inequities and that 25 percent of African Canadian women are living below the poverty line compared to six percent of white women.

The problem is compounded by societal expectations of what it means to be a “strong Black woman.” We are expected to take care of the household, be the backbone of the community and speak up against the very oppression that necessitates that strength to begin with. Then there’s the emphasis that society puts on Black mothers when there is no father present in the household. “It isn’t good enough to be the best parent she can be,” says Dalon Taylor, president of the Black Health Alliance. “She needs to be accountable for the absence of a father, too.” All of this, combined with the stigma associated with mental illness in many Black and African Canadian communities, means that Black women in Canada are bearing a huge load, often with relatively meagre supports. Where supports do exist, very few of them are culturally specific or tailored to the mental health challenges that are unique to Black women.

Here’s where self-care comes in. Some of the more indulgent and performative ways that it’s done, such as having spa days, juicing and splurging on wellness products, can make it appear inaccessible and contrary to the spirit of what Lorde intended. But for many Black women who struggle with their mental health, taking care of themselves is still a political act and a matter of radical self-preservation.

So, what are Black Canadian women doing to take care of their mental well-being? Here’s how six women are doing it.

Stacy-Ann Buchanan, 37

Actress, filmmaker and mental health advocate, Toronto

black women on self care-stacy ann buchanan

Photo, courtesy Stacy-Ann Buchanan.

When I was approaching 30, I realized I was struggling — I just felt like I didn’t have anything to my name. I wasn’t married, and I didn’t have a house, a career or kids. I was born in Jamaica and came to Canada when I was 14. And I felt that, because I’m an immigrant and had made it to the land of milk and honey, I should be doing better. I put a lot of pressure on myself and thought, You have to succeed, no matter what. I knew something was wrong on the inside, but I tried to cover it up by making myself feel pretty in every aspect. And I masked those feelings with makeup and expensive clothes and jewellery. I went out and partied a lot, but when I was home, I cried all the time. I wouldn’t shower or brush my teeth for days, and I’d either starve or eat myself completely silly.

The only person I felt safe enough to share this with was my father, and his response was the typical Caribbean response: Drink some tea, pray about it and just hush it up. Mental health isn’t really acknowledged in the Caribbean. If somebody goes “mad” in the family, they’re automatically dismissed. Nobody wants to admit to that, and it’s sometimes even looked upon as something demonic. I prayed non-stop, drank tea and read the Bible every single day, but those feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness remained. By the third time I went to my dad in a state of despair, he said, “Since you like to talk so much, how about you share your business with strangers?”

I took his advice. One day I was sitting in a park, crying, and a lady came up to me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I just unleashed everything. The thing with Caribbean parents is you can never tell them things like that because you have a roof over your head, you have clothes on your back and you have money in the bank. They think, What is the problem? You have no problems whatsoever. You should be grateful, you are blessed. But when I told a complete stranger about how inadequate I felt, she wasn’t judgmental, and that’s all I needed.

I started to realize I wasn’t alone. I decided that other people were going through this, too, and I had to share my story. But instead of making it about me, I wanted to make it about the Black community and the challenges we face. By talking openly about it on social media, the shame of it disappears.

I made a vow to never go back to that hole again. It was a change I needed to make within myself, but it’s a lifestyle now. I make time for myself. The first thing I do every day is meditate. I’m very aware and cautious of who I choose to follow on social media. I like to have live plants in the house — by speaking words of affirmation to them, it’s kind of like you’re reflecting them back to yourself. Nature gives such clarity to my soul. When I go hiking, I’m completely lost in serenity.

Now, I’m at the point where I’m able to help other people. I started this women’s hiking group called Step Sisters. I post where we’re going to go, and anyone can come and join us. It’s at least an hour and a half of just connecting with nature and grounding ourselves.

Alexa Potashnik, 25

Community leader, activist, artist and founder of Black Space Winnipeg

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(Photo: Alexa Potashnik)

I was raised in a very white community. Many of my friends, peers and educators were white, and I was always comparing myself to my white friends, which affected both my academics and my self-esteem. I had a lot more responsibilities than my friends. There were a lot of housework duties, and I cleaned and cooked for myself at a very young age and got a job at 15 to help pay the bills. My mom worked most of the time, so I was left to take care of myself a lot. Being one of only a few students of colour in my school and being queer but not open about my identity created a kind of lone-wolf isolation. I had to figure out my own path and take it step by step.

Growing up, I’d hear “Depression is for white people” or “That’s a white thing,” so I learned that Black women have to be strong all the time because so much is against us. Oftentimes, when I try to seek out mental health resources, the facilitators and counsellors are white. When you’re talking about anxiety and depression that can be caused by systemic discrimination, it’s different when you’re talking to a white counsellor. When I was in university and had health coverage, I never used it. I had horrible anxiety that I’m still dealing with today, but I just didn’t feel comfortable pouring my heart out to someone I didn’t think could relate to me. I didn’t want to feel like a subject; I wanted to be heard.

At times, I convince myself that I’m alone and no one is willing to help me, and I get comfortable in that stubbornness. I think we can all relate to that feeling where, no matter what we do, we don’t think it’s good enough. For me, that feeling is fuelled by being in environments that lack folks from my community.

But over the past two years, I’ve changed a lot of things in my life, from the people I surround myself with to the energy I take in to how I invest in myself. I finally realized that the most important relationship in your life is the one you have with yourself first.

I had a life coach, an amazing Black woman who helped me find the right words to describe what I was going through. She introduced me to self-care, to having positive dialogues with myself and to the fact that self-investment isn’t a selfish act. I started doing yoga and really working with my body, learning how to breathe, meditate and just take time for myself. I went vegan and drank way more water. Art also become my therapy.

Once I figured out my path and started to become more active in my community, I became more passionate about justice and equity. I started a group called Black Space Winnipeg, a grassroots organization committed to making meaningful, genuine change in our community. I am extremely dedicated to my work, and I always strive to provide a platform for people who need it most and fight for what’s lacking for Black folks in Winnipeg.

Bee Quammie, 35

Freelance writer, Toronto

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(Photo: Jessica Laforet)

After I gave birth to my second daughter, I developed postpartum anxiety and depression. Now, when it comes down to cultural stuff, I know there are a lot of people who think “Well, if you’re upset about something, take it to God.” Luckily, I don’t have a lot of that around me, and I get a lot of support from my mom and my husband. But sometimes it still feels like there’s this hump of having to prove the validity of my feelings. I definitely had that if-I-don’t-say-anything-it-will-pass moment.

I can also be very critical of myself. When I would make a mistake, I’d often blow it out of proportion and get depressed. I knew it wasn’t always my fault, but it was easier for me to make sense of things that way. Before I could even be OK with opening up and talking about what I was going through, I had to stop that within myself.

For my first time in therapy, I was paired with a Black woman. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was also Jamaican. Speaking to her about certain things related to culture or my family was a lot easier. One time, when I started to explain something to her, she stopped me and said, “I’m Jamaican, too. I know exactly what you’re talking about.” I realized I was so used to having to explain something before talking about how it affects me, and my experience with her has been invaluable.

We have this whole strong-Black-woman complex that we’re able to manage anything that life throws at us. Sometimes you need those words to affirm you, but it can also be really detrimental because it doesn’t give us space to be vulnerable. Yes, I’m glad that all the women who came before me made it through such traumatic hardship. But should we celebrate that or look at that and say “Wow, I wonder who you would have been if you had support”? Then I look at my daughters and say “Who do I want to be for them?” I want them to see somebody who loves herself enough to take care of herself so that she can be a whole person to feed into them.

In terms of self-care, I’m trying to do better at just having time for myself, whether it’s trying to meditate or just sitting down and watching Netflix. I need to have the discipline to create that time for me and say no when I need to say no to other people. That’s something that I find is a struggle for me and a lot of other Black women—this idea that “no” is a complete sentence. I think that’s very foreign to us.

Overall, when I’m in the moment of doing something that’s beneficial, I feel the impact. For instance, a few weeks ago, I was at boot camp and knew that I was doing a few things careerwise the next day that I had never done before. I was really nervous and had been anxious for a week. And I remember that I made it through the whole workout and was so proud of myself. I thought, If I can do that, I can handle tomorrow. It helped me not feel so anxious the next day. Just finally seeing how the physical and mental sides connect was a key moment for me.

The Honourable Wanda Thomas Bernard, 65

Senator for Nova Scotia (East Preston)

black women on self care - senator wanda thomas bernard

(Photo: Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard)

The first time I experienced any kind of mental health distress happened around the time I went from a very safe, segregated school to an integrated, very racist high school. I was born in Nova Scotia, and my family has lived there for generations. But as the only student of African descent in my class, the racial lines were clear and everyone made it very clear that I was in the wrong place.

About a week before I started that new school, my father was killed in a tragic car accident. I was 12 years old, and I certainly experienced trauma and depression that manifested as extreme sadness. I felt withdrawn and lacked interest in any social activity. But in those days, no one thought that kids grieved and no one took notice. Everyone in my family was grieving, but we didn’t talk about it. No one talked to the children.

I was strong academically, so I just focused on doing well. Everyone questioned my right to be there, so I always wanted to work hard to maintain my academic standing. I was also keenly aware that my mom needed help. I became the primary cook for our family of 12 at the age of 12. This definitely kept me busy and out of trouble.

I never wanted to bring more pain and trauma to my mother, so my faith and respect for her struggle helped me turn my grief into action for change. These strategies continue to help me through difficult times, and that early trauma and recovery definitely influenced my career choice. As a social worker, I worked with children, adolescents and families dealing with mental health issues. I also became a social justice advocate.

In the research I’ve done, I’ve talked with Black men and women who say they aren’t going to mental health professionals because they’re afraid of being misdiagnosed or mistreated. Sometimes people suffer in silence, don’t get diagnosed or self-medicate. In Nova Scotia, one of the things we’ve done is offer “kitchen table talks.” If you say to people “We want to invite you to come to a mental health seminar,” of course they won’t come. But if you say “Come to a kitchen table talk at the neighbour’s house and let’s talk about issues that are important to you,” then people will.

I work hard, but I also make sure to spend time with my family. Being with my grandchildren is really good for my mental health.

Sappfyre Mcleod, 23

Co-facilitator of Project Heal, Winnipeg

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(Photo: Sappfyre Mcleod)

When I started university, I felt like a failure. I was in a funk for about a year. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my funk was filled with both anxiety and depression: depression over thinking that I wouldn’t be good enough and anxiety over waiting for this huge impending failure to take place. I couldn’t leave the house, I couldn’t open the door, and I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone. I sat in the dark, watched a lot of TV and created as much distance as I could between myself and my emotions.

My grades suffered because I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to keep up. My attendance plummeted because I was too anxious to go to class. I was so on edge that I couldn’t talk clearly, so approaching my classmates and teachers seemed impossible. I never went to get diagnosed. With the cost, I just didn’t feel like that was an option. I remember feeling so alone and very, very lost.

Then my partner and I started researching anxiety and depression and identifying where certain behaviours and attitudes may have come from. I was surprised to realize that I was still carrying things from my past and that they were affecting the way I spoke and thought.

I started asking my parents serious questions about my childhood and really challenged the narratives I had fed myself. And I learned that, within a white supremacist system, there were just so many little ways I had altered myself, especially the way I talked and presented myself.

I became adamant about the fact that I needed to love myself and be comfortable in my own skin. A big part of that was growing out of my natural hair. At first, it was just for me and my partner, promoting our personal growth and wanting to make changes in our lives. But then I bumped into Alexa, the co-founder of Black Space Winnipeg. We had a conversation about mental health, and that’s when she told me she was interested in piloting an initiative to specifically cater to mental health in our community.

With Project Heal, we understand that the racism we go through on a daily basis has an adverse impact on our mental health and that there isn’t really a space for these concerns to be addressed. Project Heal is a 10- to 12-week community group-therapy program run by Black facilitators that provides a safe space for Black people in Winnipeg who want to work toward positive mental health practices and work through trauma. We wanted to create a space where we could get together and validate each other’s experiences—where we could be honest and vulnerable while delivering positive coping strategies. Each week literally gets better than the last, as our participants become more comfortable being themselves.

For me, part of my daily practice is just finding something beautiful in each day—finding something that I’m grateful for or enthralled by in this world. And the biggest thing for me is Instagram. Whatever I want to surround myself with is, literally, on my Instagram, whether it’s self-empowerment, entrepreneurship or just Black girls being awesome.

Maedean Myers, 44

Counsellor, Vancouver

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(Photo: Maedean Myers)

I went through a really rough time in my teens where I became quite depressed and anxious. Fortunately, I had a family I could talk to, and my mother was very open to counselling. I went to see a counsellor, and it was so helpful to learn the vocabulary for what was happening to me. It gave me clarity, reminding me that “I’m not being crazy. It’s not me. I’m actually responding to legitimate stressful events in my life.”

I always loved journals and reading, and escaping into that world made a huge difference for me. Those artistic, creative activities allowed me to express what was churning around inside me. Then theatre gave me a connection to a community that became the bedrock for my life for many years.

That’s kind of how I got into counselling. What drew me in was being able to have these kinds of conversations and be with people in a particular way when they’re really struggling or feeling really stuck with something.

I get a lot of clients who are of African descent and women of colour who are trying to understand a bit more about some of the negative and confusing experiences they have living within a predominantly white culture. The big questions are often “How do we satisfy our sense of justice?” and “How do we keep in mind that we’re setting the standards for the people who will come after us?” But that’s also a lot of pressure to put on someone, so sometimes we have to say “I’m just going to let it go,” and that has to be OK, too.

I meditate on a regular basis using a variety of meditations. It’s not necessarily sitting in stillness — I might do a five-minute mindfulness spell or listen to a guided meditation. I love to dance and do karate, so they’re really essential to me. On another level, one thing that’s been really important when it comes to caring for myself is building a relationship with my father. There was a time where that relationship could be quite challenging, but over the years, we’ve kept working on it. Having a sense of connection to my father and my family has been really essential.

Related:

Self-Care Is a Radical Act, But Not in the Way We’re Practising It Right Now
“Curls Are a Form of Therapy”: 5 Black Women Reflect on Their Hair
Janaya Khan: “Activism Is Not Glamorous Work. It’s Heart Work”

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