• Vanessa C Spence

How To Help Our Young Black Women Get Through The Climb Of Mental Health

Photo of the late Chef Anthony Bourdain (Left) and Designer Kate Spade (Right)

In wake of the news around losing two major icons, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, making the decision to take their own lives, as a black woman it makes me ask the question of whether that choice would be as accepted coming from a black woman in my community. For years I've listened to the opinions of others stating the qualities of a women of colour and the first adjective that is used to describe us (other than the smoothness of our melanin skin) is our strength. But what does "strength" even mean? And what does it mean to a young black woman?

The generic meaning of strength in the dictionary is defined as having the ability to move heavy weights or perform physically demanding tasks. In my opinion, that definition could be used to describe anyone of any race or gender. So, why is it used so freely when describing a black woman? I've come to the conclusion that strength is defined differently when used in regards to a black woman. I feel that our strength is defined as the ability to withstand great force or pressure. We should not be easily affected by certain behaviours, we should be determined and we have to have impeccable self-control. Growing up around women who personify these qualities I was lucky enough to inherit them myself. And, don't get me wrong, these qualities are things that I am proud of but I was never introduced to that in between area. That grey area. That area where I can sit alone and say to myself "I don't know what's next," or "not today."

Because black women are regarded as these hardened beings that grey area was something I didn't have the luxury of experiencing. I always felt like I had to keep my guard up so I wouldn't be taken advantage of outside of my community, and worse, inside of my community. It was expected that I knew what I wanted each moment I was asked just like how it was expected that I knew exactly what I wanted to study in post-secondary school straight out of graduating grade twelve. My choice ultimately worked out but really I had no clue. What I longed for was that year off to figure things out - to figure me out. What I needed was that grey area. That space to give myself permission to not know something and be confident that I had the time to figure it out without the pressures from my loved ones.

Without that space to breathe, all of that force and pressure that comes with the meaning of being a "strong black woman" has the opportunity to build up and be transferred into actions that I can't confidently explain. Deciding not to go to work on a whim, staying in bed instead of studying for that exam or isolating myself in a house full of people. Those actions eventually become noticed by my community and I am berated with questions and opinions that end up making me feel even lesser. And the cycle just gets worse and worse with only a few ways to end.

So, that begs the question, how can we end this cycle without the devastation of death? I say understanding. I say empathy. As a community, let us take the time and try to understand what our young black women are going through on a daily basis. Times are a lot harder. Black women are not in this country only to survive anymore. We are here to thrive and that comes with a whole bag of burdens of its own. So be kind to your daughters, your sisters, your aunts and your mothers. There are some mental processes we cannot explain but they can be helped with a little understanding and support.

In the words of Jada Pinkett Smith, "I wish somebody had told me that it’s going to be okay. We’re going to have obstacles, you’re going to have difficult times, you’re going to have really dark times. But just understand, keep stepping because life starts to reveal itself to you. The light will come."

Be that understanding. Be that support. Be that light.