OPINION: Naomi Osaka and Meghan Markle reveal the racial inequities in mental health support

Wednesday, 9 June 2021 12:28 GMT

Japan's Naomi Osaka reacts during her first round match against Romania's Patricia Maria Tig. May 30, 2021. Paris, France. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Women of color are resilient. We have endured trauma, but despite popular belief, we can break. The negative stigma of mental health stops us from getting help

Charmain Jackman is the founder and CEO of InnoPsych, an organization on a mission to disrupt racial disparities in mental health.

What hope is left for women of color with no celebrity or power, when women of color like tennis player Naomi Osaka and the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, are not only ignored when they ask for mental health support, but are then villainized for speaking up about their pain?

The message is clear – women of color, we will ignore your pain. We will ignore your pleas for help. We will let you know that your worth is only in serving others. And, when you can no longer serve us, we will discard you. The message is loud and clear – women of color, your lives do not matter!

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) shared an infographic a few years ago that gave a breakdown of people who received treatment by gender, race, and sexual orientation. The data was alarming.

Only 5% to 15% of women of color with a mental health condition seek treatment. That means, 85% to 95% of women of color with a mental health condition are suffering in silence.

Surprised by these numbers? Don’t be. Just reflect on what happened to Naomi and Meghan when they asked for help.

Naomi’s and Meghan’s stories are not unique. Their stories are just public.

Let’s find out why, in 2021, women of color are still being punished for asking for emotional support.

We have to start with colonialism and white supremacy, which are at the root of the oppression that women of color face. White supremacy, the belief in the superiority of white people, has defined whiteness as “normal” and has deemed experiences of people of color who do not fit into this definition as “abnormal,” and frankly as subhuman.

Women of color have to deal with this paradox of being both subhuman and superwomen. The superwoman stereotype conveys that women of color can withstand anything and not be impacted.

As an example, during slavery, Black women were raped, ripped from their families, had their children stolen from them, and beaten, and were expected in the plantation fields the next day. This mentality about Black women and other women of color persists today.

When women of color express their needs or ask for help, they are reminded that they do not have these rights. People just want women of color to push through. Women of color are not superhuman. Women of color are simply human.

Psychology has to take a good portion of the blame here too. As the field developed, the concepts were centered on the lives and experiences of white men and women. The lives of women of color were not considered at all. So, you can understand why women of color’s physical and emotional symptoms are often misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed.

Plus, our experiences of racism and racial discrimination that often lead to racial trauma are pathologized with no accountability to the system that caused these problems in the first place.

The other problem is that White therapists account for approximately 88% of therapists in the United States. That means therapists of color represent 12% of all therapists in the United States.

If White therapists, which as we have seen are most of the therapists, do not understand our cultural experiences, they are more likely to use their lived experiences to judge what is “normal.” As renowned African American author, Bebe Campbell Moore, so aptly captures in the title of one of her books, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine.

While these statistics reveal the racial inequities in mental health, they hide the lethality embedded in these numbers. The reality is that people with untreated mental health conditions can turn to lethal means, like suicide, to resolve their problems. In fact, despite Meghan sharing that she was having thoughts of killing herself, she was not allowed to see a therapist.

Women of color are resilient. We have endured trauma, but despite popular belief, we can break. The negative stigma of mental health stops us from getting help. So, when we tell you that we need help, we need you to listen and to respond with empathy.

As Naomi and Meghan stand up and share their stories, they are calling out the institutional powers that have ignored the concerns that impact all women of color for centuries.

When they withdraw from these oppressive systems, it raises attention to issues that impact all women of color. They are also shining a light on the broken mental health system that has largely ignored people of color in research and in clinical practice.

Mental health justice for women of color has been a long time coming. We need institutions (e.g., companies, government, schools, the psychology profession, etc.) to acknowledge the harm that has been done to women of color.

We need them to provide culturally relevant mental health resources to the people of color in their charge, and most of all, we need you to listen when we ask for assistance.

By breaking their silence, Naomi Osaka and Meghan Markel have shown us what it means to stand in your truth, even if that means talking about your mental health. They have stated loud and clear that the mental health of women of color matters. 

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