Black Women’s Mental Health: 4 Ways Race and Gender Affect Mental Health

Focusing on Black women, The Maya Centre is thinking about how race and gender differences inform mental health outcomes and ways to alleviate these disparities.

By Hannah Uguru

It’s been highlighted that Black women in the UK experience increased mental health problems compared to other races, but the true level of inequality may shock you when placed under a critical lens. As women, we’re already twice as likely to be diagnosed with clinical depression than men, but Black women are only half as likely to seek medical assistance as white women. Hormonal reasons are not all that is responsible for this gender disparity, with the Mayo Clinic identifying issues influenced by a global culture of misogyny as contributing factors to increased levels of mental distress among women. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that living in a society informed by anti-Black racism is also having similar detrimental effects. Black people are over 4 times as likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than any other race in Britain, with the bulk of this overrepresentation linked to Afro-Caribbean communities. So, what can we do about this?

As part of The Maya Centre’s #TheBigGive match funding campaign, we’re spotlighting specific ways in which Black women are uniquely placed to suffer greater psychological harm, to raise awareness and find solutions to these problems. From the 8th to the 22nd of March 2022, one donation to our organisation will go twice the distance in supporting mental health services for doubly minoritised demographics, like Black women.

Here are 4 ways race and gender affect mental health:

1. Unequal Access to Reproductive Health Services

The Problem

Maternal health outcomes in the UK indicate that Black women are more than 4 times as likely to die during childbirth than white women. Women of Asian descent are twice as likely, as well as mixed heritage women. There is a marked racial bias within our country’s healthcare system, with many women of colour feeling dismissed by medical professionals. Harmful stereotypes, like the prevailing notion of ‘female hysteria’ or that ‘Black people feel less pain’ dually impact Black women when seeking medical treatment, making healthcare staff less likely to provide pain relief and more likely to ignore their concerns. 

Black women are half as likely to engage in postpartum healthcare than white women, seemingly due to this disparity in treatment. Postpartum depression affects an estimated 10-20% of women, with detection among low-income demographics – for which Black women disproportionately comprise – being much lower than among wealthier counterparts.

The Solution

Organisations like FIVEXMORE have been formed in response to these shocking findings and are dedicated to supporting Black mothers, promoting self-advocacy throughout pregnancy and childbirth. They also work to train health professionals and lobby for change, with a 2020 petition to improve Black maternal health outcomes gaining over 187,000 signatures and making its way into parliamentary debate for the first time in history. 

2. Increased Rates of Domestic Violence

The Problem

Lifetime estimates suggest that 1 in 3 women in the UK will be affected by domestic abuse. Data from Sistah Space shows that 86% of African and Afro-Caribbean heritage women in the UK have either directly been a victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse or know a family member who has. Despite the high prevalence, Black women, along with Asian and minority ethnic women, are far less likely to report incidents to the authorities. One reason relates to harmful cultural attitudes towards women in which women of colour are disproportionately represented in cases of FGM, honour-killings, and forced marriages.

A deep sense of distrust between Black British communities and the police also exists and heavily informs the likelihood of speaking out. “Well I can’t see any bruises on you” is a quote from a Metropolitan Police officer to a Black domestic violence victim, which illustrates the erasure that happens when we use whiteness as the standard. Furthermore, Refuge data shows that between March 2020 and June 2021, Black women were 14% less likely to be referred to Refuge for support than white survivors of abuse. Indeed, Black people as a whole more frequently enter mental health services via the courts or the police, rather than from primary care, which is the main route to treatment for most people.

The Solution

Sistah Space, a domestic abuse charity supporting women of African and Afro-Caribbean heritage, was birthed out of the pervasive level of violence incurred by this demographic of women – more specifically, in reaction to a Black femicide case concerning Valerie Forde and her 22-month-old baby, who were killed by her ex-partner. The organisation addresses the precise cultural needs of Afro-heritage victims through Black women therapists, political lobbying, and the provision of feminine hygiene products like sanitary towels and underwear.

In 2021, they created a video campaign to highlight the disparity in treatment between Black and white female victims of domestic violence to increase awareness of the inequality.

3. Heightened Vulnerability to Mental Illness Due to Societal Misogynoir

The Problem

Misogynoir is a specific type of discrimination levied at Black women that factors race and gender. It is both gendered racism and racialised sexism. 

Specific data on misogynoir and its impact on mental health remains empirical, in turn being a testament to the widespread erasure and mistreatment Black women collectively face in society. Nonetheless, a clear picture can be formed by looking at the effects racist and sexist experiences have on an individual’s emotional wellbeing. For instance, a UCL study found that one in five women report sex-based discrimination, and these women are more likely to face more significant emotional distress after the incident. Similarly, many people of colour have claimed experiences of racial discrimination have left them feeling culturally and socially isolated, physically and emotionally unsafe, angry or frustrated, and stressed. 

Michelle Albert, M.D., M.P.H., director of the University of California at San Francisco’s Center for the Study of Adversity in Cardiovascular Disease, says Black women report higher stress levels than women of other races, linking these social factors as a root cause. These continuous stressors increase Black women’s risk of chronic health issues, including high rates of hypertension, obesity, diabetes, lupus, preterm birth and maternal morbidity. These all work together to traumatise both the mind and body.

The Solution

The London Black Women’s Project (LBWP) was established in 1987 as a women-only Black feminist organisation that serves the best interests of Black women and girls in the UK’s capital city. They are working to enfranchise Black women socially, economically, and institutionally by offering free legal resources, accommodation, education, and over provisions to ensure self-sustainability among this societally marginalised demographic. 

The Black, African, and Asian Therapy Network (BAATN) is Britain’s leading voice in psychological care and support for people of colour. A key reason why marginalised people don’t speak out is that they feel no cultural or social connection to medical practitioners typically presented to them. The network offers a database of therapists of colour who can relate on this level to those seeking help, contextualising mental illness within the framework of race and other socially marginalising realities.

4. Increased Proximity to Poverty

The Problem

Poverty heightens the risk of mental illness, being both a causal factor and a consequence of poor mental health. Figures from the Mental Health Foundation show that people living in households in the lowest 20% income bracket in the UK are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest 20%.

Poverty is both a racialised and gendered issue. Over half of Black children (53%) currently live in poverty, and 22% of women have a persistent low income compared to just 14% of men. With the burden of childcare and other domestic duties falling mainly on women’s shoulders, along with reduced lifetime earnings due to pregnancy and structural sexism in the workforce, many women are trapped in a cycle of economic deprivation. Ethnic minority women are doubly impacted, with Pakistani women being the most impoverished, followed by Black African and Caribbean women.

Black British women are more prone to experience issues like anxiety, depression, panic, and obsessive-compulsive disorders than their white female and Black male counterparts alike.

The Solution

The Maya Centre is just one of many specialist counselling charities that deliver free, culturally sensitive support to racially minoritised women in the UK. Last year we provided 3,500 counselling sessions and supported 272 women through individual therapy. Our goal of £50,000 for #TheBigGive campaign will allow another 50 women to access longer-term, free, one-to-one counselling, as well as enable us to extend our psycho-education workshops.

How You Can Help

Click here to donate. No matter how big or small, your donation will be doubled – enabling us to double our impact for the women we serve.

If you’re not in the position to donate at the moment – you can still help!

Simply share this campaign on your social media, tagging @biggive and @mayacentre in your posts, or share it with 5 friends you think would love to see this campaign succeed.