When Depression Strikes the (Black) Superwoman

For a new mental-health campaign, Essence’s Susan L. Taylor talks about her secret sadness.

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“I felt like everything coming out of my mouth was incorrect. I’m out there speaking in front of thousands of people with a smile pasted on my face but dying on the inside. “

Taylor’s wrenching testimonial is part of a federal public service campaign that launched this week to raise awareness of emotional health issues among African Americans. The new “Stories that Heal” PSAs were unveiled at Howard University to coincide with the inaugural HBCU National Mental Health Awareness Day.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are widespread in the United States and often misunderstood. In 2008, an estimated 9.8 million adults over 18 years old wrestled with serious mental illness. Overall, 58.7 percent of Americans with serious mental illness received care within the past 12 months, but the percentage is lower for African Americans. Fear and embarrassment keep more than half of us who need services from seeking them.

The personal stories in the PSAs look at a range of emotional issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and suicide, among men and women of all ages. And while the impact of depression on black men remains alarming and clouded in silence and shame, it is the stories of depression among successful black women that are so surprising.

“It is those who are at the very top who suffer in silence,” says Terrie M. Williams, founder of the Stay Strong Foundation, which co-sponsored the campaign and co-executive produced the videos. “You cannot show a kink in the armor. When I open up and talk about my raw pain, people feel as if they can remove a layer of the mask.”

Williams first shared her story in a 2005 article that ran in Essence. The founder and CEO of the Terrie Williams Agency, one of the country’s top public relations firms, Williams battled with severe depression in secret. After years of feeling bone-tired and hurting inside and out, she eventually collapsed. She recovered, she says, thanks to therapy, medication and telling the truth. Her Essence essay received 10,000 responses and led to the 2008 book, Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting.