Be strong. Be perfect. Be better than the rest. Be the breadwinner. Be supermom. Be the one who holds it all together for yourself, your family and your community. Be a Strong Black Woman.
It can take a toll on your physical and mental health. Historically, Black women have had to push beyond all limitations to keep families together and unified. Currently, Black women are pushing even harder – physically, mentally and socially to model the way for children who did not experience the trials of segregation and Civil Rights. Women are the heads of household in 30% of Black and African-American homes, compared to 9% of white homes, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
“Black women often get so caught in ‘doing’ because we have had to keep putting one foot in front of the other in the face of social and racial injustice on top of the typical struggles of women,” said Revella Nesbit, Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, a specialized health plan contracted with the state to support 825,000 residents in 20 counties Revella Nesbit who receive Medicaid or are uninsured. “There are so many Black women who displayed this strength: Rosa Parks, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Harriet Tubman, just to name a few,” she said.
Black women have had to endure slavery and abuse, separation from our children and husbands, being labeled as aggressive or as the angry Black woman when we speak our truths, not being trusted – just to name a few,” Nesbit said.
The Strong Black Woman Syndrome is “succeeding through the good, the bad, the pressures, the obligations, or the feeling that you have to be strong,” Nesbit said, “You have to show very little weakness or vulnerability with the expectation that you are going to get things done no matter what the toll is on the mental, physical and social aspects of who you are.”
For Onika Wilson, Vice President of Quality Management for Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, the Strong Black Woman Syndrome is that sense that you have to be everything to everyone and be twice as good as the next person at Onika Wilson anything you do. Wilson’s mother came to the United States from Guyana, South America, to pave the way for the rest of the family. When she had enough money, she sent for them.
“My mother came up before us and worked several jobs,” Wilson said. “She did this on her own while my dad stayed behind. There’s this expectation because your mother worked so hard, you have to succeed.”
Wilson said often she feels like she is responsible for keeping everything going because of the sacrifices made by previous generations.
“You’re responsible for it all,” she said. “You’re responsible for the success or failure of your family and your community because you’re the head of the house in many instances.
“There’s also this self-imposed expectation that as brown or Black people – you have to be better than. If everyone is doing 10, you have to do 20. I not only have to show I can do as well as you, I have to do better,” Wilson said. “This expectation transcends the American experience to all cultures but is especially felt by Black women.” LaDonna Battle, Vice President of Care Management and Population Health, said the pressure for her is feeling as if she LaDonna Battle has to be perfect and an overachiever.
“My mom was that superwoman,” Battle said. “She had two girls. She was a divorced mom. As a divorced mom, she taught her two girls that you have to be able to take care of yourself and your family whether you have a man or you don’t have a man in your life.”
Her daughters have shown signs of feeling the strong Black woman pressure, too. One recently told her that a bachelor’s degree isn’t enough. She won’t stop until she earns a doctoral degree.
Battle said her mother pushed her to aspire to excellence and not to leave anything on the table. “There are no exceptions, no time to be sick. You push through it. You have to work harder and be stronger than the next person because there’s always someone stronger,” she said.
All three women say the best way to protect your mental and physical health is to develop a strong network of support — family, friends and colleagues — who you know you can talk to and ask for help when you need it.
“I’m a member of an awesome sorority, Delta Sigma Theta,” Battle said. “We give balance to each other. We give support to each other. We pull each other back when we’re on the edge.”
Wilson added that learning to put less pressure on yourself while keeping that support group strong is important to protecting your mental health. Nesbit, Battle and Wilson want to show women that despite the struggles that Black women have had to endure, we can triumph and be healthy, whole and successful.
If you need mental health help fast, call **ASK (star-star 2-7-5) from your cell phone or 1-800-939-5911. For more information about Cardinal Innovations, visit www.cardinalinnovations.org.5
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