The “Angry Black Woman” stereotype is making it damn near impossible for Black women to get mental health care

In “I Rise,” a series from HelloGiggles, Black women writers examine Black women’s mental health from every angle—from what it takes to access treatment, to the exchange of trauma across generations. We hope this series arms women with information and power, and opens up more space for this important conversation to take place.

When I made the decision to seek therapy years ago, I had two very visceral, opposing reactions. The first was an initial burst of excitement, an eagerness to work on myself and, hopefully, become a more attentive friend, partner, and mother. That feeling was quickly chased by a jolt of panic: I knew right away that I would feel more comfortable working with a Black female therapist, and I also knew that where I lived—a small Florida town with a tiny Black population of less than 3%—would make that difficult.

The relationship between mental health and the Black community is one that is slowly evolving, but while we often talk about ancient, understandably skeptical attitudes toward therapy, we don’t talk enough about the modern roadblocks we face when we try to get help. As a Black woman, searching for therapy means looking for a professional who is equipped with the best understanding of how our identities inform and influence our experiences. How we navigate the world is colored by both racism and sexism, and that has such a major effect on our mental health that it makes it nearly impossible to avoid those topics during therapy. Our unique experiences must be properly contextualized and factored into our care. 

“Health professionals—especially those who are treating minorities—have to be mindful that treatment is not a one-size-fits-all for them,” said Patrice N. Douglas, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “What works for white patients may not work for Black patients, so it is important to get as much understanding and cultural training to give the best treatment as possible.”

Part of that understanding includes having a working knowledge of our relationships with the negative stereotypes that impact us daily. Without that, we run the risk of linking with a professional who not only lacks the cultural competence, but is also potentially working under those implicit biases. For instance, the Angry Black Woman stereotype—one that maligns Black women as aggressive, hostile, and ill-tempered—is so pervasive that it can greatly impact how we receive, or are sometimes denied, mental health treatment. A report published in the journal Social Work in Public Health notes that when mental health professionals fail to acquaint themselves with the stereotype, they often incorrectly cite certain symptoms, like mood swings, irritability, or just genuine responses to oppression, as evidence of this trope.

Another generalization that works in tandem with the Angry Black Woman is the Strong Black Woman trope, which can also lead to a misjudgment of our mental health needs. Douglas elaborated:

“At times, health professionals don’t believe how much Black women are hurting at first, which goes for physical and mental health. Often, when they discuss the reasons why they need services, they are often viewed as strong individuals whom instead of being consoled and helped, they are viewed as role models of strength. This in turn stops them from seeking treatment and going back to keeping everything inside.

This does little to alleviate the existing, complex stigma surrounding mental health care in the Black community, which is informed by factors like a general lack of access to treatment and an inherent mistrust in a medical community with a dark history of experimenting on Black bodies. If you find that you’re able to overcome those barriers, you’re still left to navigate an overwhelmingly white selection of professionals. In 2013, white professionals accounted for 83.6% of all active psychologists, whereas only 5.3% identified as Black. As we contend with such a wide and overt disparity, how can Black women hope to get the proper care we need?

Fortunately, there are resources that make it just a little easier to find the professional care that we are looking for. Therapy for Black Girls is an online wellness space founded by Dr. Joy Harden Bradford that encourages healthy attitudes about mental health care specifically within the community. There, you can find a helpful directory of Black mental health specialists, which you can search by location and insurance.

But for those who simply can’t access a Black professional, how can the majority non-Black professional mental health community provide better care for existing and future Black female patients?

“It’s important for Black women to feel comfortable and understood,” Douglas explained. “When it comes to Black women, it is crucial to take your time getting to know them and their story. If you often battle with being uncomfortable discussing racism and Black trauma, then it is recommended they be referred to another professional because it is going to come up. Research and study their culture so you understand the resistance of why they often don’t seek treatment.”

And, of course, take stock of the existing stereotypes that hinder our ability to seek professional care and actively work to negate them in your practice. “[Increase] the support of Black women not having to be superheroes,” said Douglas. “Speak to the [idea of] ‘It’s okay to not be okay’ so that they are more comfortable seeking help with their emotional well-being.”

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