Mental Health & the Corporate Black Woman

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I have been contemplating this topic for the last several months but every time I started to write about it, I found myself discouraged by the weightiness of the subject.  You see, Black women, Black people in general, rarely talk about mental health, though most of us, if we are honest, probably know at least one person in our families that is not quite mentally healthy. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I decided to push through and get this out.

Growing up in Nigeria, religion and social propriety were the guiding principles of my life.  I was raised to believe two things.  a) There was nothing that couldn’t be fixed in church and b) you must never do anything that will bring disgrace to the family name.  So, any awareness or discussion of mental or emotional health was non-existent, or at best dismissed as “first-world problems” or “rich-White-people problems”.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, at least 20% of Americans suffer a mental illness once a year. But did you know that Black folks are 20% more likely to report having psychological distress than Whites (US Dept. of Health and Human Services) and are also less likely to seek professional help or treatment? Women are also more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression than men.

Since I am not a health care professional, this is neither going to be a post steeped in any scientific or medical research, nor will it be a bunch of “google-able” information on the subject.  Instead, I will share with you my thoughts, as well as my own personal struggles on this.

Being a Black person in modern-day America in my opinion, can be a significant catalyst for mental illness.  With each viral Facebook video we see of the brutal killing of our Black youth, many of us have had to confront (or maybe not confront) our fears about being Black in America.  So many of us Corporate professionals who may have thought, “Oh, this can’t happen to me.  It only happens to those types of Black people”, have seen repeatedly how respectability politics and our socioeconomic status does not redeem us from racism.  I have watched my levels of anxiety increase significantly with each news article.  Currently as I write this, I am anxiously waiting for my fiancé to return home. I cannot wait to heave that familiar sigh of relief as I hear the keys in the door, to release a breath I don’t even realize I am holding.

It’s not difficult to imagine how a Black woman may have mental health issues (particularly anxiety and/or depression) either develop or be exacerbated as a result of being in a toxic Corporate environment.  While depression is triggered by changes in brain chemistry, factors such as stress, grief or difficult life circumstances can also be a leading indicator.  Whether it is dealing with constantly bumping against the dreaded glass ceiling (which is usually much lower for us than our White, female colleagues) or the incessant wear and tear from micro-aggressions – the sort you’re not even sure you should be offended by, though you can’t seem to shake that weird feeling as you think to yourself … “Did that just happen?… What did she mean by that?”

I not only know firsthand what daily doses of all the ‘-isms’ can do to a woman, I have also seen it happen with up-and-coming Black women I have encountered.  I have observed her self-esteem visibly shatter from ‘mansplaining’, as her already soft voice diffuses to a mere whisper.  I have seen the wheels turn in her head as she second-guesses herself, even though she has just come up with the solution for multimillion dollar problem. These occurrences, especially if they are not countered by a more powerful positive energy, can definitely lead to health issues in general.

Signs to Look Out For

Unfortunately, due to the limited focus on mental compared to physical health, many women are uninformed about the true state of their mental health.  While I am not a professional in this space, I have battled with mental health challenges in the past during the course of my Corporate journey.  Here are some very familiar noticeable signs:

  • Increased fatigue independent of level of physical activity. I went from being an avid marathoner to not being able to put on my Asics.
  • Restlessness, both physical and in my mind. Difficulty remembering or concentrating on work or anything really.
  • Heart palpitations that would start as soon as I woke up on a weekday morning. Initially, I could trace it to say, a presentation I had to give or a big project coming due.  Eventually, it just became a staple.
  • Increased digestive issues. I’ll spare you the details.
  • Lack of motivation to perform even the most basic tasks. I mean, really basic. Frankly, some days I felt like a car that had no gas but still had to drive miles on fumes.
  • Persistent sadness. I was really good at masking this to avoid freaking people out. Eventually I couldn’t.  They noticed.
  • Persistent back pain. Didn’t realize that I had been tensing my muscles all day at work, causing a persistent dull ache in my back.
  • Unexplained sweatiness. So much so that I had to reapply deodorant throughout the day at work.
  • Unexplained, drastic weight gain.

Everyone is different and obviously, symptoms vary.

What can you do?

Seek help

Most companies offer health insurance that should also cover visits to a mental health practitioner.  Take advantage of this.  You are not weak if you ask for help.  On the contrary, it takes strength.  Take the first step and schedule your first visit.

Do the work

Like physical illness, there is usually something that needs to be done to heal. There may be medication, surgical procedures, dietary and exercise requirements, physical therapy.  Mental health also requires action to get better.  Simply sitting and waiting will likely yield stagnation, or worse yet, exacerbation. Follow the directions of your mental health professional – whether they be supplements, Cognitive-Behavioral therapy assignments, EMDR, etc.  There are a whole host of treatments depending on the situation.  Decide you want to get better and work at it.

Get off the hamster wheel

This one is very important.  In many cases, the stressors at work are so significant that even with ‘doing the work’, there may be little to no improvement.  It’s like having a gaping hole at the bottom of a boat and trying to keep afloat by dumping the water out with a spoon.  Won’t work.

Look into taking some time as you would if you had a physical illness.  This is no different.  Start with your sick days and then perhaps some longer-term options.

Find a support system

If you are unable to confide in your family or close friends, seek a support group. There are a ton of online resources.  Facebook is a good and easy place to start.

And for those who think mental health is just a hoax and respond by saying things like “suck it up” or “don’t be sad”, I leave you with the video below.

Other resources

Suicide Hotline
Phone: (800) 273-TALK (8255)
http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
800-826-3632
http://www.dbsalliance.org/

American Psychiatric Association
703-907-7300
www.psychiatry.org/

International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression
http://www.ifred.org/

National Institute of Mental Health
Phone Number: 301-443-4513
Toll Free Number: 1-866-615-6464
Fax Number: 301-443-4279
Email Address: nimhinfo@nih.gov
Website URL: www.nimh.nih.gov

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