Nina Westbrook Is Urging Black Women to Put Their Mental Health First
"The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman," Malcolm X proclaimed in 1962. It's been 58 years since he gave this powerful speech, and his words still ring true.
Due to racial bias in the healthcare system, Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the workplace, Black women don't fare much better, earning $0.61 cents for every dollar a non-Hispanic, white man makes, according to the National Women's Law Center. These are just a few of the racial injustices Black women are subjected to on a daily basis. And as taxing as daily encounters with race and gender discrimination can be to one's mental and physical health, Black women continue to fight for the respect, representation, recognition, and equality our white counterparts are granted due to bias and privilege.
"I think that Black women and women of color are some of the most undervalued groups of people in the US," Nina Westbrook, MA, LMFT, told POPSUGAR. "We want to present ourselves as strong women. We want to be there for our families. We want to wear all the hats. We want to be successful. We want to put on a brave face," she said. But the Strong Black Woman archetype we're all too familiar with is detrimental to our well-being.
"I think that Black women and women of color are some of the most undervalued groups of people in the US."
Black women have been conditioned to be everything to everyone, prioritizing and catering to the needs of others while neglecting our own. "What comes along with that is all the suffering in silence that happens because we want to be strong and we don't want to be vulnerable. We want to show that we can do it. We can do all of these things, and we are valuable, and we are deserving," Westbrook said.
Research has found that racism can affect one's mental health and is positively associated with depression, anxiety symptoms, and psychological distress, which is why it's imperative Black women (and all Black and brown people) have access to resources to take care of our mental health. Existing in a society that constantly scrutinizes Black women, we've adopted coping strategies for our survival like building up walls and compartmentalization. But Westbrook cautions against operating on an "extremely high level at all times" because eventually, you'll reach a breaking point. "It's OK to struggle. It's OK to have emotions, it's OK to have breakdowns and cry," she said reassuringly.
The racial disparities in mental health care coupled with the stigma surrounding mental health persist, but Westbrook believes that Black people should prioritize their emotional well-being to have control over our emotions, to better navigate our daily experiences, and to improve the overall quality of our lives. "There are so many different ways that we can all tend to our mental health whether it be individually, whether it be through meditation, or whether it's through traditional therapy — there are so many different ways that we can maintain, and work on, and cultivate our mental well-being," she explained.
"As a Black woman myself, I have had to learn that I don't need anybody else to place any value on me or tell me that I'm important."
She also recommends exploring mindfulness, journaling, exercising, and speaking with someone you trust to release built-up tension, built-up energy — anything that's weighing you down. "It's just a matter of finding out what that thing is for you that helps to fulfill you," she said.
Additionally, Westbrook said to be selective about the tasks you're taking on, ensuring that they best suit you and won't force you to overextend yourself. "I think that as a Black woman myself, I have had to learn that I don't need anybody else to place any value on me or tell me that I'm important. That has to come from within," she said. Over time, she's learned that she is deserving of breaks, attention, and being prioritized, and she feels empowered saying so. "I think that we just have to give ourselves the grace and allow ourselves to prioritize our feelings and our emotions and the things that we go through and take care of ourselves so we can be these strong, amazing women that we are set out to be."