A researcher assesses the impact of a prevalent stereotype on the mental health of black women. (Photo: Sharon Dominick/Getty Images)

A researcher assesses the impact of a prevalent stereotype on the mental health of black women. (Photo: Sharon Dominick/Getty Images)

New research offers more insight on the damaging impact of living with the Strong Black Woman (SBW) stereotype when it comes to the mental health of black women.

Researcher Carla Desi-Ann Hunter, Ph.D, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, analyzed the stress-related coping behaviors of black women to assess the role of the SBW stereotype.

Hunter, a young African American scientist, describes her ongoing research as “an investigation of the individual factors that characterize ethnic minority individuals’ experiences of resilience and risk in the U.S. racial context.”

“Specifically, I hope to understand how racial and ethnic minority individuals’ identities (including the socialization of these identities) and the experience of race-related stress (e.g., perceived racial discrimination, racial microaggressions) may buffer or place them at risk for the development of poor mental health outcomes.”

Self-Reliance and Depression

For the study, 95 black women, ages 18 to 65, were surveyed to determine whether they strongly identified with the SBW concept or whether they were largely indifferent to the idea.

Hunter found that black women who endorsed the SBW idea were far more likely to use “self-reliance and self-silence” as strategies to deal with stress. Women who believed in the SBW concept were far less likely to be psychologically open or to seek professional help for mental health issues.

The study concluded that taking the stoic SBW approach to stressors “could trigger anxiety and depression symptoms that may intensify when coupled with negative attitudes toward professional psychological help.”

Mounting Evidence

Hunter’s work adds to the findings of November 2014 study of black female college students conducted at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Researchers there found that “both moderate and high levels of SBW endorsement increase the relationship between stress and depressive symptoms, while low levels of SBW endorsement do not. These data extend previous qualitative findings and suggest that embracing the SBW stereotypic image increases black women’s vulnerability to depressive symptoms associated with stress.”

Learning to Let Go

The findings of these two studies suggest that many of us are still holding onto to a concept — the Strong Black Woman — that actually makes us vulnerable to poor mental and physical health. Untreated depression is a contributing factor to many health problems, including heart disease and dementia. Stress plays a role in almost every chronic illness, including cancer and accelerated aging.

Yet, current reports from the National Alliance on Mental Health show that black women are still far less likely to seek help when depressed than other groups.

So what is the answer?

  1. The first step is admitting that we were not created to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders.
  2. The second step is embracing the concept of self-love and self-care.
  3. The third is learning more about how to understand, recognize and get treatment for depression.

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