Why Michelle Obama opening up about depression is a big deal for Black women

For the former first lady — perhaps the most well-known Black woman in the world — to be so candid about her mental health is hugely significant, two psychiatrists told CNN.

“It allows other Black women and women of color to understand that we all can essentially not feel great,” said Dr. Michelle Durham, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine. “It normalizes that mental illness can happen to anyone at anytime, and that we can all struggle.”

Americans are experiencing more mental health consequences related to Covid-19 than people in other countries, a new report found. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, one in three adults in the US report symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders, according to a June survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation. And numerous studies have shown that the pandemic has hit people of color, particularly Black people, the hardest.

“[Michelle Obama] makes it okay to talk about, and I think that will open the discussion up for so many people, especially during the pandemic, who are really struggling with trying to understand the emotions that they’re experiencing,” said Dr. Erica Richards, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Some Black women can be reluctant to seek help

Though there has been increased awareness and discourse around mental health among Black people in recent years, conditions like depression can still be stigmatized.
People who seek out the help of a mental health professional are sometimes concerned that others may view them as “weak” or “broken” — concerns that research suggests are prevalent among African Americans.

“In the Black community, a lot of times mental health is really not the focus of discussion,” Richards said. “And what that leads people to believe is that, ‘Well, it’s not something that my race, my culture, my people, identify with.'”

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Black women in particular often face pressures to stay strong in the face of everything they’re dealing with, said Durham. And that can make them reluctant to seek help.

“There’s been this narrative historically that [Black women] can take on a lot of stress,” she said. “You work, take care of families, kids, communities and that you’re superhuman in some way.”

That’s why Obama’s decision to open up is so important, Durham added.

“I don’t think society has always allowed a Black woman to be vulnerable in that way,” she said. “[Obama] demonstrated to us the vulnerability we don’t always get to see.”

Black people are less likely to receive care

Black adults are more likely than white adults to report persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness or that everything is an effort, according to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health. There’s also a gender gap: women are about twice as likely as men to develop depression.
Still, only about one in three Black or African American adults who had a mental illness received care for it, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
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Even when Black women do seek mental health services because of their stresses and emotions, they’re sometimes dismissed, misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed, Durham said.

That can be due to a lack of cultural competency among health care providers, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). For example, a provider without an understanding of African American populations might not recognize that when a Black individual is describing symptoms such as body aches and pains, they could be experiencing depression.

“That’s part of racism and discrimination that’s happened not only in our communities but also in medicine,” she said. “And so I would encourage all of our providers in the medical field to not under or misdiagnose or undertreat when Black women are presenting with these symptoms and they’re asking for help.”

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How to spot symptoms of mental illness

The Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing protests over systemic racism have brought to the forefront how important mental health is to a person’s well-being, Durham said.

Everyone feels a little down sometimes. But if you haven’t been feeling like yourself lately, that’s a sign that you may be experiencing a mood disorder, she said.

Look out for changes to your usual sleep patterns or quality, difficulties in concentrating, not finding joy in the things that used to make you happy or persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, Durham said. And if you start to notice changes from your normal behavior, seek medical advice.

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Richards added that it’s important to remember that you can say no to certain commitments and responsibilities and to reach out to those you trust, whether it’s a medical professional, your friends and family or your faith community.

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And finally, recognize that what you’re feeling is natural — an idea that Obama reiterated, too.

“The idea that what this country is going through shouldn’t have any effect on us—that we all should just feel OK all the time—that just doesn’t feel real to me,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “So I hope you all are allowing yourselves to feel whatever it is you’re feeling.”


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