Summit addresses minority women’s mental health

In the age of the gluten-free diet and name-brand fitness programs, mental health is often overlooked as an important part of wellbeing. For women and marginalized communities, lack of mental health awareness is an even bigger issue.

Women’s mental health was discussed at the Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service (B.O.S.S.) Mental Health Summit April 11 on campus. The summit included a panel discussion and keynote speaker Feminista Jones, a mental health social worker, blogger, author and activist.

Catherine Thrasher-Carroll, a mental health promotion coordinator at Cornell, defined mental health as “The way we think of ourselves, the way we see ourselves in our environment and community, and how we feel about that.” This is important for black women who, Jones pointed out, frequently face racism, sexism and possibly discrimination for their sexual orientation. “A day doesn’t go by when someone doesn’t try to tell me I’m not all I think I am,” she said.

Noliwe Rooks, associate professor of Africana studies at Cornell, attributed her good mental health today to her time at Spelman College and its counteracting message that “You’re a black woman and you can do and be everything,” she said.

The speakers all agreed that black women’s mental health is further hurt by a tendency to overextend themselves. “Something unique and intrinsic to the black woman experience – and women of color – is caring more for others than yourself,” said Sade Famakinwa ‘14, a paralegal.

Both she and Ayisha McHugh ’16 said that as college students they had a lot of conflicting obligations: classes, jobs and active participation in student organizations. “What time do you have for you?” McHugh asked.

Jones related this tendency to the history of black women in the United States. After centuries of slavery and servitude, black women are “seen first as workers, not as mothers or wives or women,” she said. “This has become such an intrinsic part of being a black woman that we don’t even realize we’re struggling.”

This failure to recognize their struggle can prevent black women from seeking help for their mental health issues. “Our community has come to equate good mental health with persevering … getting through, making it,” said Famakinwa.

The speakers discussed other obstacles to seeking help for mental health issues. “We don’t talk about it, we don’t report it,” Jones said, explaining that the stigma of mental illness can prevent women from getting help. Famakinwa said that she experienced the stigma herself as an undergraduate.

Other obstacles include affordability and fear of discrimination.

Jones concluded that having good mental health requires many factors beyond professional help. “You absolutely have to have sisterhood,” she said.

Said event organizer Noelani Gabriel ’16: “Cornell is a stressful environment for all students due to the academic rigor of our courses and pressure to engage socially. However, this environment is particularly difficult for black women to navigate. There are few spaces on campus that celebrate our beauty and our brilliance. There are few spaces in our own communities for us to talk about what effects us and thus, we feel silenced and vulnerable. The tricky thing is, because of current and historical stereotypes, we are often unable to embrace this vulnerability. This event was our way of building ourselves and embracing that.”

The talk was sponsored by the Black Women’s Support Network. Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service (B.O.S.S.) aims to foster healthy and genuine relationships between upperclasswomen and underclasswomen of color, promote positive social interactions within the community of women, encourage high academic and personal standards, provide access to helpful campus resources and inspire community involvement and commitment to service.

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