Black women’s mental health in the era of #blackgirlmagic

story by Sayaka Matsuoka // photos by Stallone Frazier

Tory Jackson, 15, has hints of blue and red in her dreads, wears glasses and shows a bubbly, talkative personality within the first couple minutes of meeting someone. What she doesn’t show so readily are the years of social anxiety, panic attacks and depression that she’s coped with both in and out of school.

Tory, a sophomore at Western Guilford High School and the middle child of three, lost her grandmother Ettra Jackson in March 2015.

Ettra had been battling multiple sclerosis for years and over the last 18 months of her life, her health had started to decline drastically. Tory was 13 and an eighth grader at Guilford Middle School when her grandmother died, and it greatly affected her. Tory’s single mom, Lavinia Jackson, said the two were close.

“They used to play games on my mother’s back porch and when Tory was younger, she would always sleep in my mother’s bed when we visited her,” Lavinia said. “This was the closest that death had ever been to [Tory].”

And while Ettra’s passing was also hard on Lavinia’s eldest daughter Tyler Smith and her youngest daughter Tabytha Jackson, Tory’s history of anxiety came to a head when she fell into a sudden depression and began exhibiting signs that went beyond the normal grieving process.

“She became suicidal because she wanted to be with my mother,” Lavinia said.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has brought the killing of unarmed black men at the hands of police to the forefront, but recent studies show that black women and girls experience a considerable amount of discrimination — if not more than their male counterparts — because of their dual identity of being both women and being black.

And it’s affecting their mental health. A 2011 report by researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that compounding factors such as poverty, parenting and racial and gender discrimination put black women at greater risk for mental illness.

Anna Lee, an associate professor of psychology at NC A&T University in Greensboro, has been studying this trend.

“There is a psychological impact of experiencing dual identities,” Lee said. “Being both women and a racial minority can lead to stress and affect not just physical health but mental health as well.”

Recent studies have shown that black women face a variety of physical health problems in addition to the myriad of mental health illnesses they live with. A new study put out this July by the Department of Health in Texas has found that black women bear the greatest risk for pregnancy-related deaths in the state and that factors such as heart conditions, legal or illegal drug use and high blood pressure are the leading causes of deaths. Another report by the Center for Disease Control from 2012 found black women to be the population with the highest rate of obesity in the United States with four out of five women being diagnosed as obese or overweight. According to the study, any number of factors can contribute to this statistics including genes, diet, socioeconomic status and the environment. The study also found that women who reported more experience of racism were more likely to be obese. Additionally, the 2011 report by the researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that a combination of factors such as poverty, child rearing responsibilities, and an increased likelihood of racial and gender discrimination led to higher levels of major depressive disorders in black women. And for some girls like Tory, these factors can come into play from an early age.

After grieving through the summer and entering Western as a freshman that fall, Tory had begun to feel better emotionally. Her life was returning to normal until one morning in November. Ettra’s birthday, which fell that month, triggered a flood of emotions.

“I didn’t want her to be at school when all she wanted to do was call my mother and say, ‘Happy Birthday,’” Lavinia said. She urged Tory to stay home and recuperate but the eager teenager had already decided to go to school.

That’s when things went south.

Tory Jackson (center) and her family, including her mom Lavinia and sisters Tyler and Tabytha are stronger together.

After going through first, second and third periods in an emotional cloud that left her numb and disconnected, Tory walked into her fourth-period earth science class. The lethargy that had persisted for the first half of the day broke suddenly in a flood of grief that overwhelmed her.

“I started shaking and crying and my anxiety got really bad,” Tory recalled. “I started having a breakdown. My friend tried to calm me down but nothing was working; I had to leave.”

Frantic and emotional, Tory approached her teacher, a white woman, and asked her for permission to leave to go to the bathroom.

“She told me to stop overreacting and that she wasn’t letting me leave,” Tory said. “She told me to sit back down and threatened to call the administrator’s office and the school officer if I didn’t go back to my seat.”

The teacher accused Tory of asking to go to the bathroom too many times, though Tory said that she had only asked to go three times all year before this incident.

In contrast, Tory recalls a white student getting to leave class early on a regular basis to go to lunch before other students.

And though this may sound like the stuff dramas are made of, for girls dealing with any number of stressors including school and family, current research suggests that stress associated with everyday micro-aggressive gender- and race-related events can relate to depression and anxiety.

A groundbreaking 2011 study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, in partnership with the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University showed trends of discrimination by teachers against black students and those with educational disabilities in schools. The study followed close to a million seventh-graders in Texas over the course of six years, and found that black students, both male and female, were disproportionately likely to be removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons that stemmed from inherent bias rather than misconduct. A presentation by members of Guilford County Schools including then-Superintendent Maurice Green to the school board reported data from 2014 that showed an equivalent level of disproportionality in discipline referrals and suspensions. The data showed that while black males only made up 20.5 percent of students, they constituted 48.8 percent of the referrals while black females, who made up 20.3 percent of the demographic, received 21.5 percent of the referrals.

Monica Walker, the diversity officer for Guilford County Schools, gave a talk last month at the YWCA in Greensboro that focused on how black girls are faring within the school system. Her presentation outlined startling results that showed African-American girls as the second lowest in test scores, second highest in number of suspensions and as exhibiting low numbers in student success measures like reading and math proficiency.

Walker said in an interview that the No. 1 way to combat implicit bias is to have teachers admit that they have it. The county is currently offering sessions and workshops for teachers on how to interact with students of all races and cultures, Walker said.

“These discriminatory practices can have long lasting effects on the mental health of students,” she said. “A lot of times, there are different expectations for students of color. The tendency is to not call on them as much and so the kids end up feeling like the teachers don’t care about them.”

Tory recalls feeling this way in her fourth period class.

“[The teacher] didn’t make any effort to call my mom or anything and I just started to feel worse and worse,” Tory said.

Rejected by her teacher and now humiliated, Tory returned to her seat, fearing a trip to the principal’s office or, worse, a visit by the school-resource officer. She slumped into her chair at the back of the room next to the wall and pulled her hood down over her head, ignoring both her teacher and her concerned friends.

As soon as class ended, Tory retreated to her one place of solace within Western’s walls — the counselor’s office. Ron Dargan, who is one of four counselors at the high school, had become a good friend to her over the past couple of months. To cope with bouts of depression and social anxiety, Tory had started going to the counselor’s office two to three times a week.

Prior to the incident in her fourth-period class, Tory had experienced other panic attacks including a severe one in the school cafeteria.

“All of a sudden I felt too crowded and freaked out,” Tory said. “I started crying and screaming and then hyperventilating. I accidentally kicked someone and then I couldn’t breathe or see or walk straight.”

That time school administrators called her mother.

To try and prevent incidents like this and the one in her classroom, Dargan helped her by teaching her breathing techniques and even coaxed her through periods of self-harm.

And while it is uncertain whether the interaction between Tory and her fourth-period teacher was one bred from racial bias, Dargan said he has witnessed firsthand, subconscious bias against students of color during his time as both a school counselor as well as a court counselor.

“They used to give harsher punishments to minority kids for similar crimes,” Dargan said. “Whether they were targeted, I can’t say but I witnessed longer service hours and longer sentences for many of the minority kids that came to court.”

Dargan said that if the children of color had witnessed this discrepancy, it could have affected their mental health too.

That year, Tory failed her fourth period earth science class.

“A lot of times I would come into that class mad because of the teacher or because of other students and I couldn’t focus on the work,” Tory said.

A report by the National Center for Education Statistics’ Education Longitudinal Study, or ELS, tracked results from 2002 to 2012 in a nationally-representative sample of 10th graders. The study showed that on average, teachers thought that black students were 47 percent less likely to graduate college than white students, and that these very expectations were more predictive of student success than other factors such as student motivation. And while black male students are still the most affected by these inherent biases, the long established “strong black woman myth” coupled with the taboo of mental illness within black communities compounds to make these realities uniquely difficult for black girls and black women.

Kimya N. Dennis, a sociologist and criminologist at Salem College in Winston-Salem, has researched this topic for the past 12 years.

“The strong black woman phenomenon is a mental health issue,” said Dennis, who is herself African American. “Even if we suffer from depression or anxiety, many black women don’t report it because culturally, the African diaspora is raised in a traditional, conservative, religious environment. We’re told to hide aspects of ourselves and that if we’re feeling weak or emotional, that we should pray about it and hope it goes away.”

Dennis also said that this trend for teaching black women to always portray themselves as strong starts at a young age.

“Black girls are taught that if they’re sad, they aren’t praying hard enough,” Dennis said. “Some families teach girls to be strong from a young age and teach them about deferring to men and to observe how women in their families act and interact.”

Tyler Smith, Tory’s sister, is 19 and grew up under her mother’s influence of understanding her dual identity. She describes herself as artsy and said she always felt different and was seen as the eclectic kid throughout her years in school. As the eldest, Tyler was a mentor to Tory and her sister Tabytha. And while she has embraced her blackness in recent years, she said it has taken her a while to fully accept it.

“My mom always taught me that because I’m black, people are going to look at me differently,” Tyler said. “I understood it but I was younger so I didn’t quite get it.”

She remembers battling anxiety and depression when she was Tory’s age and feeling like she wasn’t loved or wanted.

“I used to lock myself away in my room and once in a while, I would cut my arms and legs,” Tyler said. “I felt like I needed an escape.”

She also recalls years later, during her freshman year at UNCG, a similar incident to the one Tory experienced after she had been hit by a car while crossing the street on campus. The accident didn’t result in any major injuries but left Tyler with a wounded right rotator cuff, which made completing some of her school work harder, especially in her design class.

“I started to fall behind on projects and tried to explain my situation to my professor,” Tyler said. “But he didn’t help me out and said that it was policy even when I said that I had done everything I could.”

Tyler recalls thinking that she had been discriminated against because of her race.

“If someone else had a problem, he seemed to be pretty cool about it,” she said.

After missing two to three weeks of school because of the accident, Tyler’s grades began to fall and her battle with depression and anxiety worsened. And then her grandmother passed away.

“It was the worst thing ever for me,” Tyler said. “I stopped going to class and didn’t do anything. She was an art teacher and the reason why I’m an artist.”

When she tried going back to school the next year, Tyler said everything fell apart. She explained that she didn’t go to class because she was grieving and it was around this time that she began to accept the fact that she was living with mental illness. Now, Tyler is attending GTCC and pursuing a biology degree. Looking forward, she understands the challenges that she was born into.

“Because I’m a black woman, I feel like I have to work three times as hard,” she said.

Her mother Lavinia, who is now 44, has known this struggle for a long time. She’s a single mother, and has lived in Greensboro with her three daughters for the past eight years. She too, lives with anxiety and PTSD from both physical and sexual assault that she experienced years ago while in college and during her time stationed with the Coast Guard in Boston.

The first incident took place back in 1991 while Lavinia was attending Loyola University in Maryland. She had just had a fight with a male friend who also happened to be one of the school’s star basketball players.

“We had an argument in the dorm hallway so I ran into my room and closed the door,” she said. “I told my roommates not to open the door for any reason and soon enough, he was banging on the door because he left his hat in the room.”

Fifteen minutes later, one of Lavinia’s roommates deferred and opened the door, letting the man in. He began kicking Lavinia, who was laying in the bed closest to the entrance. The next day she went to the authorities but nothing was done except an internal trial and a few game suspensions, she said.

“They said they didn’t want me to press charges because it would ruin his basketball career,” Lavinia said.

Eight years later, when she was stationed in Boston, she was attacked once again. Lavinia had decided to go to a nearby bar by herself, she said, and a man that had been pursuing her all night drugged her drink. The next morning, she woke up in a stranger’s apartment with her clothes torn off, she said.

“I knew I had had sex,” she said. “There were signs of struggle but I couldn’t remember anything.”

The next day, Lavinia remembers sitting on the floor of her apartment, staring into space. She called a friend who asked her if she was sure she had been raped. Two days after the assault, Jackson decided to go to her commanding officer, who took her to the emergency room to do a rape kit but was told that the results would be inconclusive because it had been more than 24 hours after the assault. Lavinia also remembers the head of medical staff at the base being dismissive of her situation.

“There was this sort of attitude that I should be able to get over it, being both in the service and being a black woman,” she said.

According to a 2010 study by the psychology department at Wayne State University in Detroit, African-American female survivors of sexual assault received significantly less regard and affirmation than did white survivors when they disclosed their assault to a formal healthcare provider. This type of medical racism is just another example of the kind of embedded bias that black women can face on a daily basis. At this point, Lavinia had a decision to make: to press charges against her assailant or not.

“As an African-American female you have a serious weight on your shoulders, especially when your rapist is black,” she said. “I had to think about whether I wanted to be responsible for locking up a brother in a system that locks black men up more than any other person.”

In the end, Lavinia decided not to report her attacker.

This notion, she said, feeds back into the damaging expectations that society has for black girls and women. She said she regrets her decision not to report her assailant.

“Black women are expected to be strong and to take whatever is thrown at us,” she said. “We are expected to support black men in anything that we do. Black men might get cut down but they get support from black women; we don’t get support from anyone.”

L. Niajallah Hendrix-Wilson, who is the executive director of the Indigo Cultural Arts Center in Greensboro and has a master’s in mental health rehabilitation counseling from NC A&T, said there are few people who understand black women simply because there are so few black women in the private sector who own mental health practices. She also pointed out the lack of research that focuses specifically on the health and needs of black women.

And like Tory, who was able to get help from her school counselor, for many students who suffer from mental health issues, the school can be the only source of aid. Based on numbers released at the end of last year, Guilford County Schools employs 243 guidance and psychological staff, an average of two per school. Research put out by the local Moses Cone Wesley Long Community Health Foundation in 2010 shows that the number of mental health clinics in the county has also dwindled significantly. Many people are forced to see regular physicians or seek out non-profit organizations such as the National Alliance of Mental Illness or the Greensboro Mental Health Association that provide counseling. But that’s only short term. Others forgo trying to receive help because they lack insurance or can’t afford the high prices of private practices. Dennis, the Salem College professor, also notes the lack of funding that these organizations receive from the state due to increasing budget cuts as being one of the main problems adding to the shortage of care and accessibility.

“One of four people have issues but many are having trouble getting the care they need,” Dennis said. “Think about how that affects women in minorities.”

This year, Hendrix-Wilson and about 30 other black women in Greensboro came together to host the first Healing Wheel Conference, which was held on September 17 at the YWCA and focused on the health and vitality of black women. According to the website, the conference aimed to create a place of healing for women with trauma. For Lavinia, who attended the event as a poet, it was a key gathering that left her feeling supported by other black women.

“I found out that I can step out of my comfort zone and be me,” Lavinia said. “I needed that particular space to make sure that I was valid and doing everything I could to be healthy.”

For families like Lavinia Jackson’s, which exhibit a thread of trauma within different generations, the conference may have been a small, yet hopeful start.

“I found that there is a community, a tribe, of women who are supporting me in my journey, especially as a black woman,” Lavinia said. “I know that if something happens to me, these women will step up and be there for me, and that’s new.”