Warning: This article may be triggering for some readers. Please read at your own discretion.
Stacy-Ann Buchanan waited 10 years for this moment.
It was an evening in March 2012 and the then-30-year-old was putting together a local arts show.
It was years in the making. The struggling actress from Toronto tried to find her purpose while battling anxiety and depression at the same time.
She called the show The Mystic Effect and it would be her last mark in the world.
“In my mind, not telling anyone, after the show I was going to take my own life.”
But as she watched people appreciate the music, dance and fashion she had curated, she realized this day would be far from her last.
While Buchanan wasn’t able to talk openly about her mental health at that time, today she is an advocate and host of The Blind Stigma podcast. She has ongoing discussions on mental health and what it means in the Black community.
But finding mental health support in the Black community can be layered with racism, intergenerational trauma and stigma, according to an August 2020 report by Ottawa Public Health (OPH). Cultural barriers and limitations in accessing affordable and diverse mental health support also make it harder to seek help.
As the COVID-19 pandemic pushes the topic of mental health to the forefront, conversations about mental health are vital and Black women are speaking up.
Generational conversations on mental health
Growing up in a Jamaican community, Buchanan found conversations about mental health often swept under a rug of shame.
Her conversations with her parents were difficult and initially roadblocked with layers of intergenerational misinformation about mental health.
When she approached her dad, Buchanan said he responded to the idea of depression and anxiety as something you could “pray away.”
“Their fear is that it’s a shame and reflection on them. Parents in the Jamaican community, Caribbean community, Black community, take it as a reflection on their parenting skills, like they didn’t do well,” she said.
However, after her mental health advocacy blossomed into an award-winning documentary in February 2015 also called The Blind Stigma, Buchanan said her dad’s views have changed.
“He just honestly said it was what he was taught. This is generational,” she said.
La Keita Carter, licensed psychologist and vice-president of the Black Mental Health Alliance, said there are some mental health challenges unique to the Black community.
She said cultural barriers in the Caribbean community often push religion as the first and only option.
For many Black women, Carter said, going to therapy is the last resort.
“Before you go to therapy, you would normally check with your pastor at church or ask the church elders to get help.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic fraying the fabric of these connections, she says this can be especially isolating for Black women who predominantly find counsel in religion.
But going to church and seeking mental health support are not mutually exclusive, Carter added.
“If someone is struggling with, ‘Why don’t I just use my faith?’ Well, the answer is that you can use both.”
While Buchanan navigates the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic with “high-functioning” anxiety, she says she intentionally tries to dismantle the negative stereotype of the overly strong Black woman.
Carter said the strength of Black women is undeniable, but it shouldn’t overpower the ability to seek help.
“Strength isn’t what you carry. It is what you choose to put down,” Buchanan said.
It’s a sentiment she uses daily, not only as a woman of colour, but also as a Black mom.
Black moms hitting roadblocks
Tanya Hayes, founder of Black Moms Connection (BMC), said for Black mothers seeking mental health support, finding mom groups open to discussing the intersectionalities of Black identity can be difficult.
“I have so many moms who any time they try to bring up race in other mom groups, they would just be kicked out. People would rather avoid the conversation about race and racism than try to engage,” she said.
Hayles said while it’s important to have support spaces specifically for Black women like BMC, well-informed therapists from any background can teach resilience and offer support.
She said it’s about understanding the layers of mental health for Black women.
“Whether it’s how to be the only Black person in your work environment, how to see the things that we see happen against Black people on the news … and then also teach your children about racism.”
Finding affordable care
Finding affordable mental health support with professionals of colour is one of the reoccurring barriers discussed by Black women, according to OPH.
Clary Chambers navigates life as a queer Black woman with an invisible illness and knows the power of finding culturally sensitive mental health support.
As the CEO of Spark Clarity, Chambers provides accessibility consulting to her greater community while living with fibromyalgia. It’s a condition that causes her to experience chronic pain.
After the death of George Floyd last May, she said living in a predominantly white community in B.C. made her feel even more vulnerable.
“It can be really daunting to think about how am I going to now, on top of everything else, find someone to understand my experience,” Chambers said.
While her current therapist is not Black, Chambers said she was able to find adequate support by stating her needs outright.
When speaking with her therapist during their first session, Chambers said, “I said, ‘I am a Black woman and I will require someone who will support me as a Black woman.’”
With a range of online resources like Psychology Today that curate diverse psychologists, Carter says finding the right therapist is becoming less difficult — more like “looking for a pencil in a haystack.”
However, finding the courage to speak out when you need help can make the difference between surviving and thriving.
“Surviving is about doing what you can to keep yourself afloat … but thriving is about swimming,” she said.
Similarly to seeking mental health resources, she says it’s important to take steps that help you survive.
Whether it’s finding affordable professional help offered on a sliding scale or practising small acts of mindfulness, finding support for mental health will look different based on your needs.
Trey Anthony, relationship expert and author of Black Girl in Love (with herself), said there needs to be a “reprogramming” of the strong Black woman dialogue.
“There is no room in many Black women’s lives for us to be vulnerable or for us to break down.”
When someone opens up to you about their mental health, she says it’s important to give people permission to be open.
As we navigate the isolation of the pandemic, Anthony says it’s vital for Black women to realize, “we cannot be everything to everyone until we are that to ourselves.”
And as you debate taking the first steps to finding mental health support, she reminds us, “It’s OK to be scared, it’s OK to not have all the answers, and it’s OK to say, ‘I need help.’”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
Crisis Services Canada’s toll-free helpline provides 24-7 support at 1-833-456-4566.
The toll-free Hope for Wellness helpline provides 24-7 support for Indigenous Peoples at 1-855-242-3310. Online chat services are also available.
Trans Lifeline operates a toll-free peer support hotline for trans and questioning people at 1-877-330-6366.
For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.