Why aren’t women of colour believed when they address mental health issues?
Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka has announced that she is withdrawing from the French Open after being fined for declining to speak to the press during the tournament.
The four-time grand slam champion cited mental health struggles – namely anxiety and depression – for why she chose not to do media interviews and her subsequent withdrawal.
‘I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly,’ wrote Naomi. ‘The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.’
‘I am not a natural public speaker and I get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.’
Despite the candid and open nature of Naomi’s explanation, she faced a mixed response online, including backlash, abuse and disbelief from some.
‘Naomi Osaka doesn’t have mental issues,’ reads one tweet.
‘What a fraud. Mental stress is nothing to lie about!’ said another.
And it wasn’t only the anonymous keyboard warriors. Prominent columnists labelled her ‘narcissistic’, and tennis great Billie Jean King initially said Naomi should ‘woman up’, before deleting her tweets and instead posting a more sympathetic statement.
This is not the first time a woman of colour has come under scrutiny after revealing a struggle with mental illness.
When Meghan Markle shared that she had considered suicide due to racist abuse and feelings of isolation in her interview with Oprah Winfrey, she was met with scrutiny and accusations of lying.
Lord Alan Sugar tweeted: ‘I find it hard to believe that Meghan was not allowed to seek medical assistance over her aledged mental state. So what would happen if she had acute appendicitis. ? I say she is lying [sic].’
Nadia Whittome, Britain’s youngest MP, announced last week that she is taking a leave of absence from the Commons after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
It comes just weeks after the 24-year-old revealed she has been getting death threats, racist abuse and trolling online.
Many people posted messages of support and well-wishes for Nadia, but there were still those who were vocal about the fact that they didn’t believe her.
The political blogger known as Guido Fawkes wrote a post titled; ‘Nadia’s shell shock shows politicians need life experience’. The blog minimised the young MP’s experiences and cast doubt on her claims, saying what she has been through is ‘nothing akin to the trenches of the First World War.’
Women who live and work in the public eye would expect to come under a higher level of scrutiny than the average person, but this systematic denial of mental health issues when expressed by high profile women of colour is a concerning trend.
We live in an era when #BeKind periodically trends on social media, and culturally, we have made huge strides forward in mental health awareness and understanding over the last few years. Why then, is this same understanding not applied when it is a non-white woman who is sharing their experiences?
‘The uncomfortable truth is that when racially minoritised women speak about their mental health, they are less likely to be believed then their non-racialised counterparts,’ says psychologist Dr Roberta Babb.
‘The main reason for this involves the pervasive and insidious impact of racism. Racism which perpetuates the denial of a racialised woman’s reality, in which trauma is a driving factor.’
Dr Babb explains that racist structures and beliefs maintain negative racial stereotypes that ‘dehumanise women of colour’, which may explain why they are not always afforded the same level of empathy.
‘This process activates a variety of mechanisms which make it easier for people to act out their aggression and anxiety, and question, dismiss, deny or demand public proof of a racially minoritised woman’s private and personal emotional experience.’
Meanness and a lack of compassion about mental health in online forums is not a new issue, nor it is something only experienced by women of colour. Women of all ethnicities routinely have their pain underestimated and minimised by medical professionals.
But Dr Babb says it’s important to keep in mind how racism, sexism and misogyny are closely linked in instances like this.
‘Based on how people have responded in the past to both racialised and non-racialised women’s expression of distress, it is likely that people may have responded differently to the situations described,’ explains Dr Babb.
‘It is likely that white women will have been seen as vulnerable and in need of support and protection, and their expressions of internal distress would not have been questioned or dismissed in the same way that we have seen [with Nadia, Naomi and Meghan].’
She adds that there is also often a sense of ‘entitlement’ to demand public answers about personal experiences from women of colour – even during periods of distress – as proof of what they are saying.
‘Unfortunately, when this is not forthcoming, racialised women can be targeted and find themselves on the receiving end of aggression, hostility and violence, which will exacerbate their current emotional distress,’ she adds.
Jonathan Taylor, who is the managing psychologist at Pearn Kandola, says some of this comes down to different expectations about how women of colour are expected to behave, in comparison to white women.
‘When white women are stereotyped, they are often perceived as being high in warmth, but lower in competence (and it is notable when women are seen to violate this – highly competent but cold). Therefore, there is a general expectation and social acceptance of white women being open about their feelings,’ explains Jonathan.
‘If the person is seen as similar to ourselves, we are more likely to respond with positive emotions like empathy. If someone is seen as highly competent, but different, the emotional response is more likely to be distrust or suspicion.
‘Despite this, I have also seen a big outpouring of support online for each of these women, so think it is important that we recognise that many people have been supportive and responded positively.’
The Stereotype Content Model
Decades of social psychological research suggest that we perceive other people along two dimensions – how competent they appear to be (e.g., skill, intelligence, strength), and also how warm they appear to be (e.g., friendliness, trustworthiness, caring).
This is known as the Stereotype Content Model.
The two dimensions are often negatively related – so, when we perceive someone as being highly competent, we often assume that this is accompanied by lower levels of warmth. Here, we’re not just talking about women of colour (which is in itself an intersection of two minority characteristics), we’re also talking about women of colour who are seen as highly capable in their fields – like Naomi, Meghan and Nadia.
But, because they are seen as highly competent, there is a risk that they will also be seen as less trustworthy, or seen as using the situation for their own benefit.
We have seen many examples of this in media discussions about Meghan Markle. With Naomi, there was an initial assumption that she was dismissing the media for trivial reasons.
Jonathan Taylor, managing psychologist, Pearn Kandola
What is the impact of not being believed over mental health issues?
‘The impact of these experiences is far-reaching,’ explains Dr Babb. ‘It can be distressing to be the focus and recipient of such negative reactions – especially at a time when you are already feeling unsettled, emotional and vulnerable.’
As a society, we are taught that it’s both important and brave to speak up about mental illness. However, when women of colour do just this, Dr Babb says they become the focus of ‘negative and aggressive projections’.
‘This experience is stressful and traumatic – especially as it often occurs within arenas that do not afford much privacy,’ she adds.
Dr Babb says that this in turn can trigger, contribute to, and exacerbate symptoms of emotional distress.
‘In an attempt to make sense of these painful and negative reactions, and at a time when they feel as if they have little power, rather than challenge the negative reactions, racialised women can turn the experience inward,’ she explains.
‘This can see them question the reality and validity of their mental distress as well as question their sense of self, value and worth.
‘This can have a negative impact on their self-esteem, confidence, relationships, job performance and physical health. It can also contribute to decisions to withdraw from roles and social experiences which leave them feeling exposed and vulnerable, and in extreme situations, when the distress or feelings of being trapped become unbearable, lead some women to self-harm or suicide.’
Jonathan reiterates just how damaging it can be to dismiss someone’s lived experience or question their integrity, particularly around sensitive and personal issues.
‘Even today, it takes a lot of courage to put oneself out there and talk about mental health, particularly on a public stage,’ he tells us.
‘People who are fighting their own struggles will see the reaction when people they perceive as similar to themselves speak out. It indicates the level of psychological safety to do so.
‘If someone’s openness is met with suspicion or dismissal, it sends a strong message that it is not safe to speak out, or that it is not worth it. Instead of showing people the value of speaking up, it reinforces a message that it is better to stay silent.’
The State of Racism
This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020 and beyond.
We aim to look at how, where and why individual and structural racism impacts people of colour from all walks of life.
It’s vital that we improve the language we have to talk about racism and continue the difficult conversations about inequality – even if they make you uncomfortable.
We want to hear from you – if you have a personal story or experience of racism that you would like to share get in touch: [email protected]
Do you have a story to share? We want to hear from you.
Get in touch: [email protected]
Source: Read Full Article