May is Mental Health Awareness Month and I thought I'd take this time to share some tips and tricks about writing Black women who struggle with their mental health.
As an author, reading and writing stories is how I make sense of our world. I don’t think I’m alone in that. For that reason, I find it essential to write honestly diverse characters who reflect the realities of life. That’s why I choose to write heroines who struggle with their mental health in one way or another – because depression and anxiety are unfortunately very common and under-diagnosed amongst Black women. I want my readers to feel seen and understood by my characters, which means that when it comes to creating these complex figures, I have an obligation to get it right.
Introducing Ava Marie
I’ve said on more than one occasion that Yves Santiago popped up fully formed, and I only had to pluck her from my forehead like Zeus giving birth to Athena. Ava was birthed in much the same way, but when I began to write her story, her character took shape in unexpected ways.
Ava Marie Green was Yves’ best friend. In The Lust Diaries, Ava called Yves on her bullshit and loves on her when she needs it. Yves serves that same purpose for Ava in The Truth Duet. But Ava proved to be even more complex than her brash, kinky friend who was working through her own ideas around femininity and monogamy. Her struggle was much more interior. With Ava, I began to sort out my growing mental health issues.
In The Truth Duet, Ava sorts through generalized anxiety, depression, a mother wound, and codependency. Friend had a whole lotta shit going on! Her experiences taught her valuable lessons about love, loss, forgiveness, and the power of hope in The Truth Duet. However, writing her story exposed the fact that mental health struggles affect Black women differently.
Discussing Black women’s specific experience of depression and anxiety
Depression affects lots of people, regardless of their race or gender. However, the stigma surrounding mental health is particularly strong in the Black community, and Black women often bear the brunt of this stigma. It's important to acknowledge that while all the studies out there strive to point out commonalities (that are largely based on white men like most medical and psychiatric studies), everyone's experience is different. It can be difficult for Black women to seek help for their depression due to cultural and societal pressures that often dismiss mental health issues as a sign of weakness. The weight of societal expectations, discrimination, and historical racial trauma can make these struggles feel particularly heavy.
For this reason, I feel that it’s vital to create safe spaces where Black women can speak honestly about their mental health and feel supported. It's important to recognize that seeking help can be a difficult step, as there is still a stigma surrounding mental illness in many communities. Knowing that you’re not alone, and reaching out for help can make a world of difference. One of those safe spaces can be books. These are the types of interactions I attempted to include in The Truth Duet and With Her Own Two Hands. Seeking help is a sign of strength. Everyone deserves the chance to feel better. By understanding and addressing the stigma, we can create a more caring and inclusive society for all.
Understanding mental health stigma and how it affects Black women specifically
Black women have been historically rendered invisible when it comes to mental health conversations, making navigating depression and anxiety both difficult and isolating. By understanding the intersecting stigmas, pressures, and experiences that shape this narrative for Black women, you can portray your character more authentically.
Guilt – Black women may feel guilty for the inability to improve their situation for their families due to systemic racism and economic disparities. We also tend to overachieve and overwork ourselves for the same reasons.
Fatigue – Depression can lead to extreme fatigue, which can be detrimental to work, academic performance, and other activities, like, just having anything left to give to our families and friends.
Irritability & mood swings – Black women may respond with irritability as a coping mechanism. We often suppress emotions to protect their loved ones, but aggression can manifest as a result of persistent sorrow.
Social isolation – Deflecting or suppressing our emotions can lead to isolating ourselves from support systems such as friends and family. Burdening others is something most of wouldn’t dream of doing. This is especially prevalent for Black women as we seem to shoulder most of the emotional labor for our community and our families.
How to write Black women who are managing their anxiety and depression
Recognizing anxiety and depression symptoms and knowing how they manifest for Black women is half the battle. It’s also important to include ways your characters manage their conditions in healthy ways.
When writing characters who live with mental health challenges, it's crucial to do extensive research on the symptoms, causes, and available treatments for the specific condition you want to explore. This will help you avoid harmful stereotypes and generalizations and create a well-rounded and realistic character.
2. Avoid Stigmatizing Language
Mental illness is often stigmatized in society, and it's crucial to avoid language that perpetuates these harmful attitudes in your writing. Labels such as "crazy" or "psycho" should be avoided, as they simplify and sensationalize mental illness.
3. Avoid Stereotypes & Harmful Tropes & Themes
Mental illness can manifest in many different ways, and it's essential not to fall back on stereotypes or harmful tropes and themes. Avoid portraying mental illness as the defining characteristic of your character, and instead focus on creating a character who is complex and multifaceted.
4. Show Empathy
Writing a character who lives with mental health challenges requires a deep sense of empathy and understanding. Take the time to put yourself in your character's shoes and explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a nuanced and sensitive way.
5. Address Social Issues
Mental health is often tied to social issues such as poverty, discrimination, and lack of access to healthcare for lots of people, but especially Black women. Addressing these issues when writing characters who live with mental health challenges can make the story more realistic. Highlighting the intersectionality of mental illness and social issues can create a more realistic and holistic portrayal of mental health.
6. Avoid Exploitation
Mental illness is not a commodity to be exploited for the sake of entertainment, shock value, or profit. It's essential to approach the topic with respect and empathy, avoiding sensationalism or exploitation of mental illness in your writing.
7. Have them seek counseling.
Black women can benefit from therapy but most are reluctant to seek it out until the situation is dire. Writing scenes where your characters are in therapy and managing the symptoms and stressors associated with anxiety and depression helps to normalize it for Black women who read your work.
8. Give them a community
Isolating your Black characters is a whole ‘notha topic of discussion that I might address one day, but giving the Black women you’re writing a support group related to their situation, and/or understanding friends and family members they can share their experiences with helps them understand that they’re not alone and may encourage your readers who are Black women to do so in real life. I think it’s important that some of their support system looks like them and can understand their struggle on an intimate level. As someone who’s tried group therapy and quit it, I can tell you that caring for the feelings of white women/people in these spaces made what should have been helpful, un-fucking-bearable. Don’t do that to your character. Please.
Incorporate self-care practices into your narrative. A natural inclination is to include the capitalistic suggestions that are fed to us. I'm not saying you should eliminate them entirely but there are other options. Self improvement, spiritual practices like meditation or affirmations, exercise is an excellent way to alleviate anxiety and promotes better sleep quality. These are all excellent ways for your character to manage their mental health.
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As an author who centers Black women in my narratives, writing has been an essential escape and release from depression and anxiety. It’s a way for me to write the happily-ever-afters that Black women deserve. It's also allowed me to express emotions that I couldn't otherwise articulate and has given me a sense of control in a world where I often feel powerless. Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) has helped me process my thoughts and feelings without the fear of judgment or misunderstanding. It's also given me a sense of accomplishment and purpose, something that can be hard to find during the darkest times. I know I'm not alone in this experience, and I hope that by sharing my reflections, others struggling with mental health can find solace in the written word as well.