Mental health and wellness is as important for Black Women after the pandemic as it was before – if not more.
July is BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Mental Health Awareness month.
While the month of May is dedicated to recognizing and raising awareness for mental health and well-being for all Americans, July seeks to shed light on the mental health needs of historically marginalized groups and their communities.
As we approach BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month this year, Black women are finding ourselves in unique situations. They are now having to learn how to deal with the effects that COVID-19 and ongoing racial trauma have had on their mental health, their families, and their communities.
But they don’t have to just “shoulder through it.”
There are ways Black women can take care of themselves by finding support and help for their mental health and well-being this month and every month after.
Raising our voices
Bringing awareness to the importance of mental health and wellness is particularly important for Black women because they are often underdiagnosed and misdiagnosed for mental health conditions.
Yes, mental health affects all women.
But Black women are held to different standards and experience scrutiny in society that often have an even bigger impact on their day-to-day lives — at work, at home, and in their communities.
Recently, the world has seen Black women exhibit the confidence and voice to create changes in their lives that put their mental and physical health first.
- Professional tennis player Naomi Osaka created boundaries to preserve her mental well-being.
- Four-time Olympic gold medalist and professional tennis player Venus Williams demonstrated confidence in herself and advocated for a woman’s choice to prioritize self-care.
- Former First Lady Michelle Obama unapologetically and publicly showed emotions for 30 minutes after leaving the White House.
- American rapper and songwriter Megan Thee Stallion decided to take a break from social media.
In addition, there’s an increasing number of Black women who are now contemplating leaving their remote jobs, if forced to return to in-person work.
Black women are becoming more aware of the need to create healthy boundaries for the sake of their health and wellness.
A new ‘normal’
This BIPOC Mental Health Awareness month looks a little different than previous ones. Families are beginning to reunite and recover from COVID-19 isolation and ongoing gender and racial trauma.
Black women are now learning to navigate their personal and professional relationships while also trying to make sense of the impact of the pandemic and the ongoing effects of gendered racial trauma — the long-term physical and mental effects of discrimination and unfair treatment because of race and/or gender.
What we‘re facing: A hard look at the numbers
For Black women, a “return to normal” after COVID-19 will not be much different than pre-COVID-19 because they will still face the same inequalities and disparities. Here are some examples:
- Disparities in reproductive and maternal health outcomes, cancer deaths, and chronic disease are further complicated by the stress of racial discrimination, lack of comprehensive sexual education, climate change, and COVID-19.
- There’s a lack of access to quality healthcare coverage.
- Health concerns are politicized more even when Black women are not more at risk, such as the anti-abortion rhetoric.
- Black girls in grades 9–12 were 60% were more likely to experience suicide attempts in 2019.
60%of Black women ages 20 years and over have obesity.
60%of Black women ages 20 years and over have hypertension (measured high blood pressure and/or taking antihypertensive medication).
- Black women are
2 to 3 timesas likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women.
- Pregnancy-related deaths for Black women with at least a college degree are
5.2 timeshigher than white women.
- High blood pressure and other heart-related conditions during pregnancy contributed more to pregnancy-related deaths among Black women than white women
What ‘normal’ means for Black women
Before COVID-19, “normal” meant that Black women:
- are not proportionately included in clinical trials
- are not included in research studies on endometriosis at rates proportional to the population
- are not listened to or believed when experiencing pain and suffering
- are more likely to be diagnosed with uterine fibroids at an earlier age and experience greater levels of pain
- are more likely to undergo hysterectomy at some point for fibroid treatment
- are almost twice as likely to experience infertility
- experience menopause earlier and with more hot flashes
- are heavily marketed to by beauty-product companies, where 1 in 12 products are toxic
- are more likely to be diagnosed with and die of breast cancer, both at an earlier age
For this reason, the conversation about mental health and wellness and the importance of self-care is an ongoing one, particularly for Black women and their families.
Advice from the experts
This year, Black women are faced with a new experience — learning how to navigate, maintain, and improve their mental health and well-being.
Three mental health clinicians offer suggestions and recommendations on how Black women can navigate these new waters after COVID-19 and give them tips on how to take care of their mental health and well-being.
- Ebony Okafor, PhD, outreach coordinator and clinical assistant professor, and registered marriage and family therapy intern at the University of Florida
- Danice L. Brown, PhD, licensed psychologist in Maryland and associate professor of counseling psychology at Towson University
- Erikka Dzirasa, MD, MPH, child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist for Catalyst Therapeutic Services, PLLC, in Durham, North Carolina.
Q: How should Black girls and women take care of their emotional health and wellness during COVID-19?
Dr. Okafor: This is an opportunity to take time to really focus inward, listen to yourself, and see what you need in this space as there is so much that may be taken from you during this time, especially if we think of the epidemic of racism that is occurring simultaneously.
[COVID-19] has also caused many of us to be isolated and find that we are alone a lot more and thus not be able to tap into community as much as we used to. So it’s important to extend grace and exercise flexibility to see how this aspect of coping could be tapped into.
Dr. Brown: This has been a difficult time for various reasons and ensuring that you have healthy coping strategies and tools on hand is important. This includes thinking about aspects of self-care strategies, such as exercise, good sleep hygiene, journaling, spiritual and mindfulness practices, for managing stress and anxiety, resources for coping with grief, and most importantly, using and maintaining your social support circles.
Dr. Dzirasa (offers three ways):
- Awareness. Check in with yourself. Are you noticing any changes in your mood, such as irritability/anger, sadness, heightened anxiety, eating habits? If so, this could be an opportunity to reach out for support.
- Alignment. Are your actions in alignment with your values? During a pandemic, it can seem as though life is on hold. We can find ourselves feeling “stuck” if we are not engaging in activities that align with our values. If you value social justice, can you find an organization to volunteer with during this time?
- Acceptance. Although many refer to this pandemic as the “new normal,” there is nothing normal about this time. However, we do have to accept what is within and out of our control. While we can’t control whether or not people wear masks or get vaccinated, we can control how we navigate the pandemic. We can also accept when we may be having difficulty managing our emotions and need to seek help.”
Q: What about the single Black woman who may feel anxiety around holidays or events where families typically get together? What can she do to help reduce her stress and anxiety during this time?
Dr. Okafor: Be curious about what causes the angst, oftentimes it can be connected to feelings of comparison, jealousy, or of loneliness. It’s important to pay attention to the feeling because that’s what can be addressed.
It helps to be honest with yourself and not just succumb to what’s expected (I’m single so I must be sad or angry on this day).
Could you give this day a new meaning that will make space for love in all its ways of coming to you. Then it can become a day for romantic relationships, self, friends, or anyone you choose to show some extra love to that day.
Dr. Brown: [Holidays] can be challenging for some. I often encourage women to have a plan in place for the day that is focused on self-care and acknowledgement of all the forms of love and support you have in your life, not just romantic.
This can involve a nice morning yoga class (or other exercise session), time for journaling and affirmations about the love and support you have in your life, and of course connecting with others that fill up your love/care/support cup.
[COVID-19] is, of course, making in-person connecting more difficult this year, and it may not be ideal to organize a big [birthday or holiday] brunch with your friends, but there are still things you can do. You can make it an on-line brunch.
You can also find other fun activities such as taking an online candle-making or cooking class. Some women have also planned online paint and sips with their circles.
I also suggest that some women avoid spending too much time on social media that day if it could potentially be distressing. Social media can be a place where people post rose-colored images of their [families], not the challenges and difficulties, so of course there will be posts about [happy memories and fun times]. If you know this could be upsetting for you, limit your time on social media that day or avoid it altogether if you can.
Dr. Dzirasa: [Holidays] can be a very lonely and isolating time, especially during a pandemic. It is important to reach out to your tribe. Perhaps you can schedule a girls night in or a pajama party on Zoom, a wine tasting, or some other activity — get creative!
I would encourage you to look within and to honor the relationship with yourself. Learn how to start a practice of self-love.
Schedule a block of time to do things that you enjoy. Take yourself out on a date, or gift yourself with flowers or your favorite treat. Write yourself a love letter or write positive affirmations on sticky notes that you can place around your home. Start a gratitude journal. Have a dance party! Celebrate you!!
Q: What are the major emotional health challenges affecting Black girls and women?
Dr. Okafor: Imposter syndrome. Anxiety. Depression. Many times, Black girls and women enter into hostile places, where they are the one or only. Oftentimes their behaviors (like being quiet) are seen as forms of aggression or are not allowed to be correct in some way because it is coming from a Black girl or woman.
They may feel as though they don’t belong in these spaces, leading to internalized thoughts such as I’m not enough or I am deficient in some way. Oftentimes space is not given to Black girls and women to be complex, and these limitations can lead to several emotional blocks.
Dr. Brown: This may be a time of increased stress, anxiety, grief, and depression for women of color, and Black women in particular.
We know what the news is saying about the impact of this pandemic on women, but women of color have, again, experienced disproportionate economic effects. This may be in addition to the stress of being a primary caregiver and managing home schooling. This is only exacerbated by the ongoing racial trauma that Black communities continue to face while dealing with the tragedy of losing loved ones to COVID-19.
We also have to consider how Black women’s response to these continued difficulties is impacted by the messaging they receive about being “strong.” Many Black women who are “fine” and “managing” may actually be [struggling] but having difficulty proactively reaching out for social support out of concern that it conveys they are unable to take care of themselves and their families.
However, the messaging that Black women must always appear strong can be problematic, limiting their ability to get needed support from family, friends, or a mental health professional, if necessary.
Dr. Dzirasa: Black girls and women can often experience mental health challenges for longer periods of time because they are less likely to seek mental health support. We are [suffering] from depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and eating disorders, and we tend to [suffer] in silence.
When we don’t seek treatment, such as individual therapy or even medication management, it can lead to poor outcomes and impairment in everyday life — difficulty in relationships, poor performance at school or work, self- harm (or engaging in destructive behaviors), or even negative thoughts [about] death and suicide.
Q: Black women are managing so many stressors — whether at home, in our communities, at work, or from the current political moment. All of these may be contributing to our anxiety and depression. How can we manage these symptoms?
Dr. Okafor: Tapping into their creativity to give voice/words for those feelings that they may not always [be] attuned to.
Be consistent about making that space for yourself to check in. [And] to not judge these feelings as being good or bad but information to let you know something is impacting you (acknowledging anger could help to inform you about how you want to choose to combat the issue that is causing the anger — if we’re thinking about life at home do I need to tell my partner that I am overwhelmed instead of just holding onto the anger).
Dr. Brown: I find myself continually reminding Black women (and myself) about the importance of self-care. This goes beyond simply taking a nice bath or eating a good piece of chocolate. Self-care involves taking an internal inventory and checking in with yourself about your mood and emotional state. I sometimes suggest asking yourself the questions “How am I feeling?” and “What do I need in this moment?”
Be open to the reality that the answers may be that you are feeling sad or anxious and that you are needing social support, exercise (which can include dancing it out), deep breathing, sleep, or something more such as talking with a mental health professional.
Dr. Dzirasa: Black women often feel isolated when experiencing anxiety and depression. These symptoms can sometimes be viewed as a weakness, and it makes it harder to be vulnerable and to admit that we are [struggling]. It is important to identify someone you trust to have honest conversations about how you are feeling. You may realize you are not alone and that your support system can help you navigate these intense emotions.
In addition, girls and women can manage these symptoms by incorporating mindfulness practices (deep breathing, meditation, yoga). There are many free apps that are available that can offer these practices.
Lastly, it is OK to seek professional help. Working with an individual therapist can help girls and women learn how to identify their emotions, understand how their thoughts can impact their feelings and behaviors, and help them to come up with personalized solutions to navigate their emotions.
Q: What are some tips you can give to Black girls and women for managing their emotional health and wellness?
- Build community — especially in these times and you may have to tap into them more than usual.
- Find ways that help you emotionally tap in and take assessment of where you are on a consistent basis.
- Explore strategies that have helped you cope in a healthy way in the past, see if they still feel appropriate and be open to continuously adding more as even our coping strategies may dull over time (as life continues).
- Find a grounding practice, [maybe] that’s consistent prayer, meditation time where you can be with yourself, breathing and releasing some of those emotions.
- Get [outside] — we may not be able to gather in quite the same way, but we can still enjoy nature, bask in the sun, and look up at the stars.
- Have some self-compassion for yourself during this time. It is difficult and challenging so it would make sense if you are feeling like the things that you would usually do without any problem seem to take a little more motivation. Extend the same level of understanding and kindness to yourself that you may be offering to others.
- Move your body. It doesn’t have to be something that requires too much exertion; it can be as simple as a 10- minute walk. Make time to move your body every day. Take small breaks in your workday to stretch and step away from [your] workspace even if it’s just a few minutes.
- It is OK to unplug from or limit your social media intake. It can be overwhelming, exacerbating feelings of anxiety and depression. You may have some FOMO (fear of missing out), but trust that all the good TikTok dance challenges and celebrity gossip will keep circulating for a while so you will have a chance to catch it the next day.
- Eating healthy, not necessarily dieting, but just being mindful of how you are fueling your body. This includes making sure you are staying hydrated throughout the day.
- Getting enough sleep is crucial to managing your mood throughout the day. I often remind folx that alcohol is not a sleep aid and can actually disrupt your sleep cycle.
- Find opportunities to connect with others. This may include a safe, socially distanced walk with a friend, if online hangouts are not meeting that need for connection. Notice if you have been isolating yourself more than usual, even a quick 5- to 10-minute check-in with a friend or family member could be good for you and likely good for them.
- Allow yourself moments of joy. You deserve to acknowledge the good things that have happened for you in the midst of everything that has happened over the year.
- If you have a spiritual or mindfulness practice keep it up. Or maybe this is a good time to start one. There are tons of resources out there with mindfulness activities and suggestions. For example, there are mindfulness coloring books for kids and adults. This could be something you do with your entire family.
- Remember to breathe. Sometimes it can be helpful to stop and take a moment to practice deep breathing or become more cognizant of your breathing to encourage your mind and body to slow down.
- Get adequate sleep and practice [good] sleep hygiene. Sleeping is a restorative process that can help individuals cope with stress and strong emotions.
- Find balance with nutrition. Many people tend to under-eat or overeat, especially with spending so much time at home during a pandemic. Schedule meals (3 meals and at least 2 snacks) throughout the day and be sure to include a variety of foods.
- Seek social connections. We are constantly being told to socially distance [also referred to as physically distancing], but this does not mean we need to be socially isolated. Find creative ways to connect with your loved ones and friends.
- Create a schedule and a sense of structure throughout your day. Get dressed in the morning and designate one area of your home to do school and work.
- Engage in body movement. This doesn’t have to be what we typically think of as “working out.” This can include hiking, dancing, jumping rope, or even hula hooping!
- Be kind to yourself. Offer yourself grace. Offer yourself compassion. We tend to be our strongest critics. And it often starts with our “self-talk.” Take notice of the messages you tell yourself. Replace any negative self-talk with affirmations and self-love.
For Black women, a “return to normal” means creating new pathways for our lives, despite structural and socio-environmental barriers.
If you need additional help, consider reaching out to a healthcare or mental health professional.
Each person handles stress and anxiety differently.
You can start by talking with someone you trust and finding emotional support through family and friends.
Your primary care physician, if you have one, can also refer you to a mental health specialist, if you need one.
If you’re looking for therapy dedicated to the mental health and wellness of Black women or girls, consider trying one of these:
- Therapy for Black Girls
- DRK Beauty
- Dear Black Women Project
- Association of Black Psychologists
- Black Therapists Rock
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- LGBTQ Therapists of Color
- Melanin and Mental Health
- Inclusive Therapists
If a telehealth option is better for you, you can find information about online therapy and mental support services via the articles listed below:
- The 7 Best Free Online Therapy and Mental Support Services in 2021
- Best Online Therapy Programs of 2021
- The 6 Best Online Couples and Relationship Therapy Services in 2021
The Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) is the first nonprofit organization founded by Black women to protect and advance the health and well-being of Black women and girls. Learn more about BWHI by going to www.bwhi.org.