How to Support Your Strong Friend — And Yourself

It’s time to dispel the myth of the strong Black woman, for good

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

Amid the fifth month of a global pandemic, continued anti-Black violence around the world, and the gendered oppression Black women face, sisters’ common refrain remains “I’m okay.” Even if Black women are overwhelmed, there is the expectation they will endure it with the bravery and strength associated with Black womanhood. Perhaps that is why news of Tamar Braxton’s hospitalization, following an alleged suicide attempt, took many by surprise. This comes a month after authorities ruled the death of beloved writer and journalist Jas Waters a suicide.

This seems unusual for sisters, especially Black women like Tamar and Jas. When news broke, fans and loved ones of both commented on their bubbly personalities, otherworldly strength, and ability to persevere. That this would become part of their narratives was irreconcilable for some. The data would agree. Statistically, Black women are least likely to take their own lives. Within mental health data, this phenomenon is known as the “Black-White paradox.” Essentially, it suggests that Black women should be as prone to suicidal ideation and attempts as their White and non-White counterparts. Yet as many sisters suggest they lean on God and their family to navigate mental health crises, therein lies the problem. While women are twice as likely than men to experience a major depressive episode, Black women are 50% less likely to seek help compared to White women.

Dr. Raynia McGee, a board-certified licensed psychiatrist in Columbia, South Carolina, says Black women comprise roughly only a quarter of her patients. As research suggests anxiety is more chronic and intense for sisters than other women, McGee says most of her Black women patients are also being treated for major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After being referred by their therapist, primary care physician, or gynecologist, McGee says she has to spend a significant amount of time helping Black women release guilt. “Many of them believe they have failed themselves, their families, and God by coming to see me,” McGee says.

“Even with our friends, we have the tendency to minimize things. We already know what’s on their plates, and we don’t want to be a burden.”

When Black women come to Sation Konchellah, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and psychotherapist in North Carolina, she works hard to help them dispel the need to be strong. “Too often, something will happen in a session that will bring her to tears, and the first thing she will say is ‘I said I wasn’t going to cry today,’” Konchellah says. “We’ve been taught that we cannot show the soft and tender underbellies of our lives. And, if we feel like we can’t do it in the safe space of the therapist’s office, we’re definitely not doing it in other areas of our life.”

It is the very insistence that Black women can’t show weakness and vulnerability that lead to suicidal ideation and, ultimately, attempts. “If many Black women were honest, we’ve thought about what it would be like to not be here,” Konchellah says. “Many are under a great amount of psychological and emotional pain, and suicide is a means to end that pain.” For many, Konchellah says it’s the hopelessness that leads to suicide as the only viable option.

Yet, while Black women mask their suicidal ideation and mental health challenges, the picture is much direr for Black girls. A recent study shows that suicidal ideation and attempts for Black girls have doubled since 2001. High-school-aged Black girls are 70% more likely to attempt suicide than other girls of color. Dr. Chauncey Tarrant, a pediatrician who works in the pediatric emergency department at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, says she sees an average of one to two children daily suffering from suicidal ideation. Tarrant says the navigation of gender identity and sexuality, as well as unspoken trauma, create the perfect storm, and Black girls are often left vulnerable to the effects of untreated mental illness. “We’re seeing them come in younger and younger on the verge of a psychotic break,” Tarrant says.

As Black women and girls name their friendships as sources of strength and support, it’s vital that Black girls and women give each other the space to be completely honest and transparent. “Even with our friends, we have the tendency to minimize things,” McGee says. “We already know what’s on their plates, and we don’t want to be a burden.” Yet, Tarrant believes that a good friend can tell what’s going on even if their homegirl isn’t forthcoming. “Our hair is falling out. Our weight is fluctuating. Our skin is changing, and our energy levels are low. Even if we say we’re fine, people can see we’re not,” she says.

“So much is happening, and there’s no way that we can come out of this year and be the same. We have to embrace the change, and that will mean being there for each other like we’ve possibly never been before.”

And, in a moment of social distancing, Konchellah says listening to what is and is not said can provide much-needed information. “If your friend loves a particular activity and you haven’t heard her talk about it in a while or if you’re hearing her talking about reaching out to exes and former lovers, that requires a check-in.” Konchellah encourages her clients to identify their “maladaptive coping strategies” and create opportunities for accountability. “I tell my clients who are single that someone needs to have a key to your house, and they need to be given permission to use it when you’re not responding as you normally would or they believe something isn’t right.”

Tarrant recently experienced that accountability when she told friends about her struggles. Navigating the loss of a parent, caring for her family, and being an essential worker was taking its toll. “I’m considered the strong friend, and I had to tell my girls that I was not okay,” she explains. Tarrant says she confided in her friends, and they created a safe space to think through strategies for care. “We’re the queens of pushing through and saying ‘I got this,’” Tarrant says. “Sometimes you need to hear, ‘Nah, Sis, you don’t.’”

McGee agrees. “I find it so interesting that the brain is the most complicated organ system in the body, but it is the one system we think we can control. We believe we can will ourselves out of whatever, and oftentimes, we can’t,” she says. Konchellah hopes Black women give themselves and each other grace. “So much is happening, and there’s no way that we can come out of this year and be the same,” she says. “We have to embrace the change, and that will mean being there for each other like we’ve possibly never been before.”

Candice Marie Benbow is a theologian, essayist and creative who situates her work at the intersections of beauty, faith, feminism and culture.

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