4 Misleading Assumptions Keeping Black Girls From Getting Mental Health Care

A young person leans against a brick building, looking contemplative.

A young person leans against a brick building, looking contemplative.

I was full-grown when I finally found out what to call myself.

Before then, I called myself lazy, selfish, combative, volatile, nasty, difficult – even evil. I called myself these things because growing up, I was told to.

No one uttered the word depression in my regard. No one supposed my irritability was anxiety. No one told me how trauma touches Black girls.

My maladies were treated like an inherent character deficit; my mental illnesses were personality problems.

I mourn the years I lost to blaming myself instead of being treated. I think often about where I would be if there was some adult intervention – before depression and anxiety cost me what they did.

I think about the friends I may have kept. I think about the homework I would have turned in, the scholarships I may have gotten, the debt that may not be so deep from the college I might not have dropped out of. I think about the confidence I may have had, the goals I may have chased, how close to them I’d be.

I think about the abusers I may not have clung to, the love I didn’t know I deserved, the love I’m still convincing myself I’m worthy of.

I think about how the adults around me missed it – the teachers, counselors, relatives, family friends – how nobody saw the blaring alarms and signaling symptoms manifesting in me.

Lately, I’ve been examining the way I was failed. And in examining it, I’ve discovered that I’m not even close to alone. Black women have some of the highest rates of depression in the country, and some of the lowest rates of treatment.

And I don’t believe that it’s solely because of stigma or insurance (though the two play large roles).

I believe it’s because many of us still don’t know we deserve (or need) help. Many of us were told we were perfectly healthy – just inherently flawed. Many of us are still beating ourselves up about what isn’t our fault.

I believe society makes it easy to fail us, that lack of compassion for us is reaffirmed by many myths about Black girls as a monolith. The adults around me denied me my depth because of these assumptions. They thought that false representations of me were more real than what was right in front of them.

And as far as Black girls go, being cis, being light-skinned, being suburban middle class, being educated – all those things meant that despite the many ways I was failed, I was still failed less often than trans Black girls, darker Black girls, poorer Black girls , or less educated Black girls.

We owe all Black girls their nuance, the terrain to have true knowledge of their nature. We owe them tenderness; we owe them their own healing.

And in order to give them that, we have to let go of all the lies we tell them about themselves. I wasn’t able to brave my battle with mental illness until I knew what I was up against – until I knew I wasn’t up against myself. Black girls deserve to know they aren’t their own enemies.

So, I’ve compiled this list of false assumptions so that we can be better equipped to release them from the fallacies assigned to them – so that we can break the myths instead of Black girls’ spirits.

1. Black Girls Aren’t Vulnerable – They Have Thicker Skins

Growing up, all the images I had of Black girls were hard. They weren’t vulnerable; they didn’t need protection.

My TV said that Black girls were tough, fierce, confident, independent, strong. They didn’t need anybody. They didn’t take anyone’s shit. And they definitely didn’t have inexplicable crying spells.

But I had inexplicable crying spells.

How could I talk about that, and to whom? I felt like a defect tossed from the Black girl factory. I felt weak.

So I talked to no one about my suffering – and nobody asked. Instead, people came to me for comfort, for a piece of my perceived power. The older I got, the more friends and acquaintances I collected who felt comfortable using me for emotional support, without ever asking how I was managing my own life.

Again, I was just mirroring the media.

Any vulnerable conversations I watched Black women have in movies were ones where white women cried on their shoulders, and the Black women had strength enough to spare for them.

Don’t get me wrong, I saw Black women hurt. I saw them traumatized. I saw their fathers gone, their lovers assault them, their belongings in trash bags on the porch. I saw slurs hurled at them, their bodies degraded.

But the media’s Black woman’s chin was always up. She was never beaten by it. She got out of bed, always. She ate breakfast. Left the house. She rushed to her own defense.

It was as if all of the trauma reserved for Black women didn’t touch them, like it was a rite of passage our bodies had evolved past feeling – and not a mountain we climbed in the morning.

Mine didn’t work that way. I didn’t get out of bed, always. Sometimes I’d spend an entire weekend haunting my bedroom, only eating when anxiety relented. In direct confrontation, my hands shook, my heart raced, my eyes welled with frustrated tears. I bit my cheeks.

Because children are vulnerable, and I was a child, I didn’t know how to protect myself. Yet, everyone expected me to, and no one came to my defense. Nobody saw me as soft, because nobody could imagine a Black girl as anything but hard.

In denying Black girls their vulnerability, we deny them our tenderness.

We don’t handle them with care. We expect them to meet their own emotional needs – or worse, we pretend they have none. I knew I had emotional needs, but instead of receiving help, I called myself needy, and I hated myself for not being able rise above what no child should have to.

In denying Black girls their vulnerability, we leave them more vulnerable than anyone granted protection.

We leave room for Renisha McBride’s murderer to use Renisha’s perceived strength as justification for why he feared her when she called out for help. We leave room for officers to deny Symone Marshall care for weeks after a brutal car accident; instead, they kept her in jail until her death from the injuries; instead, they ignored her family’s persistent requests that she receive care.

In denying Black girls their vulnerability, we deny them our care.

2. All Black Girls Have Bad Attitudes

My depression often manifests as anger. My general anxiety often manifests as irritability. My social anxiety often manifests as cuttingly short answers, or no answer at all. These are common symptoms of mental illness, but are rarely depicted as such when it comes to Black girls.

Instead of attributing any of these manifestations of suffering to actual suffering, Black girls are treated as if they’re monolithically insolent, rude, defiant, difficult, callous, and mean-spirited.

Growing up, my mental illnesses combined to form a super-malady that everyone called my “attitude.” And my “attitude” was a dirty thing, something to condemn me for, something that by everyone else’s standards, I should have been able to keep under control.

I couldn’t keep it under control. And when rage crept under my skin – when a cortisol and adrenaline cocktail coursed through me, and the sound of some unsuspecting stranger speaking sent me scowling – I hated myself for it. I felt like I was an inherently bad person.

And everyone – from the people I loved to the media – affirmed that. Adults around me went so far as to label me “evil.”

Not only does attributing these signs of suffering to bad character create negative self-image, but it also invalidates very real feelings.

If we attribute anger, or irritability, or despondency to “attitude,” we erase the opportunity to get to the heart of (and correct) any valid reason a Black girl might be upset. And in doing this, we side with the people/systems causing Black girls to be upset.

I have distinct memories of attempting to get support by vocalizing that something was stressing me out. The most common response I received was, “What else is new?” or “Something’s always stressing you out.”

And in those moments, stress became a character deficit in me. Anxiety became who I was. The tension boiling in me was something the people I knew suffered from simply by knowing me, not a thing that needed treating.

And none of the issues I wrestled with were real or threatening to me or “actual problems” that merited hashing out. I was made responsible for my own suffering – and everyone and everything else was absolved.

On a systemic scale, my family’s reductions of my distressed state look like critiquing the way Sandra Bland spoke to the officer who threatened to “light her up,” instead of giving her anger any validity.

It looks like Black women being fired for being “difficult” for her peers to engage with. It looks like an underpaid, overworked, and devalued Black girl service worker called “ignorant” for not feigning joy. It looks like Black girls pushed to swallow an emotion that demands release. It looks like Black girls having some of the highest rates of high blood pressure and stroke in the world.

It looks like a fire burning Black girls from the inside.

It looks like society not picking up extinguishers, ignoring the thick smoke signals instead.

3. Black Girls Are Inherently Lazy

It’s a common trope that teens don’t have the strongest work ethic. But the trope isn’t playful when it comes to Black girls.

The media has pushed a persistent, mythical narrative of Black women as irresponsible parasites – people who work for nothing and coast by on the fruits of the labor of others.

This stereotype allows for further exploitation of Black women and girls. It allows them to be denied what they deserve and called ungrateful and greedy when they ask for it.

Whether it’s the welfare queen trope, or the one that says single mothers are only demanding child support because they don’t want to work, or the one where Black women employees in every film have to be nagged constantly to begrudgingly get any task done, the idea that Black girls are inherently lazy is everywhere. And it’s doing damage.

The first hints of a bad bout of depression settling over me are in my environment. Dishes pile in the sink. A mountain of laundry swallows the hall. Cups line the window sill. I am in the same pajamas I had on if you saw me two days ago. Getting out of bed is a laborious task, and most days I only make it as far as the couch. My e-mail inbox overflows, and my deadlines go unmet.

To an untrained eye, I look lazy. To a person denying me complexity, I should be ashamed of myself for what I can’t stay on top of when depression is on top of me.

As a teen, my depression did the same as it does now. My homework didn’t get done. My room was a mess. I didn’t know it was depression, and I couldn’t properly articulate that I didn’t complete tasks because I couldn’t, that it felt impossible.

So instead, I hid it. I shoved my messes under the bed, and in the closet, and in my locker. When rotting plates of food would come tumbling out during my mother’s clever inspections, a look of disgust would come over her face. And I was ashamed of myself.

At school, I made excuses for why my homework wasn’t done. I’d lie. My teachers would suggest that if I wasn’t taking my duties seriously, I should consider dropping down from my advanced classes. Once, my high school geometry teacher told me I was full of shit. I failed that class – because my teacher failed me.

If we treat Black girls like any dip in performance is a defect built into them, we let them wilt without watering them. We don’t ask if they’re okay. We don’t work with what they need. We don’t create room for both depression and success.

We deny them the consideration we would allot any other illness – because we don’t view what’s happening to them as something they’re suffering from. We treat it like something they’re causing.

The last thing a person suffering from any mental illness should be made to feel is shame.

Shame means we hide what’s happening to us, and we don’t get any aid. It means dropping the class, and then dropping out of school, or quitting the job, or getting fired from the job instead of having anyone advocate for us.

It means we don’t get the chance to meet our full potential.

4. Parents of Black Girls Are Inherently ‘Tougher’

My husband and I sometimes joke about our shared experiences of growing up Black in predominantly white towns.

We talk about the times we visited friends’ houses and heard the ways they were permitted to speak to their parents. We were amazed by their parents’ mild reactions. “Black parents don’t play that shit,” we say, through laughter. “My mom would’ve slapped the shit out of me for that.”

There’s an implicit understanding between us that Black parents are tougher on their children – more strict, regarding discipline – in order to better prepare us for a world that will be doubly tough on us.

Many Black people share this notion. And while Black parents do carry the added burden of teaching their child to manage oppression, too often, the “tough love” we laugh about is abuse, or replications of systemic oppression. The guidelines for abuse don’t alter based on color.

Slapping, screaming, intimidating, lashing, isolating, belittling, ridiculing, name-calling, beating, and berating don’t have a lesser effect on Black children. It’s all trauma. And when that trauma is normalized as “tough love,” that trauma goes untreated. And then the trauma perpetuates.

Childhood abuse predisposes a child to experiencing mental illness. That child needs to be allowed to heal, and for their pain and trauma to be taken seriously – both by themselves, their peers, and their parents.

Too many of us are being denied that. Too many of us don’t know that what happened to us was wrong.

Any time discussions of childhood abuse come up on Black Twitter, or in an article, or elsewhere, way too many come in to defend what happened to them. They say they deserved it. They say they’re better off because of it. They say they “needed” it. They say they only do it to their kids when they, too, “need” it. They say it’s an act of love, of protection.

And it’s easy to see how possible it is that Black parents believe that to be true.

Black people have been experiencing widespread violence for centuries (and told that it’s for their own good). The idea of corporal punishment as protection from raising a “problem” child who gets punished by the state has been passed down for generations.

But abuse protects no one. It does damage. And often, it repeats itself.

So, a Black girl who was belittled by her father (who then called it love) thinks it’s perfectly reasonable if her boyfriend does the same. She seeks the love she knows. A Black girl slapped by her mother for talking back (read: advocating for herself), then silences herself anytime she perceives anger from anyone around her.

Normalizing abuse means Black girls don’t get to know what love looks like without it. They conflate love with a lack of security, a thing that hurts, that requires constant shrinking of themselves. Love becomes confused with control. And the world has too many lessons for Black girls about control – many of which, childhood abuse prepares them to take without protest.

What Black girls need are frank conversations about the difference between a Black parent’s tough love and a Black parent’s abuse. Tough love means not enabling bad behavior. It doesn’t mean causing a child harm.

Black girls need to be able to call what happens to so many of them abuse, to stop blaming themselves for it.

Childhood abuse is trauma, and happens in cycles. Black girls who have been traumatized are consistently retraumatized when trauma is the love that they know. If we can call the abuse that many Black girls experience by its rightful name, if we can get them help for it before it becomes another thing they endure alone, we can make it less likely that they’ll experience it over and over again, or even perpetuate it. 

***

Suffering Black girls need to feel valued and deserving of care in order to get the treatment they might need.

We can show them their value by listening to them. We can show them we value them by looking for them when they go missing, or protesting when it’s them the police assault, or by being an advocate when it’s them being discriminated against in school or the workplace or anywhere.

We can show Black girls we see them by paying attention to their pain.

We can end the culture of pretending it doesn’t exist, or worse, that they deserve it. We can treat red flags like the red flags that they are. We can worry about them. We can ask questions instead of making assumptions. We can have compassion instead of preconceived notions. We can challenge our internalized biases instead of challenging their cries for help.

We can get them help.

Dominique Matti is a writer, editor, ruminator, and cool mom based in Philadelphia. Her work centralizes Black womanhood, and healing from both individual and societal trauma. She spends her free time napping in unconventional places, guzzling coffee, trying to master magic powers, and feeling all the feelings. She spends her paid time managing, writing, and editing for the Philadelphia Printworks blog. You can check out more of her writing at medium.com/@DominiqueMatti