When Depression Strikes the (Black) Superwoman

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

Getty Images
Getty Images

For a quarter century, Susan L. Taylor was editor-in-chief and later editorial director of Essence magazine. Over the years, her name and face became synonymous with African-American female strength, beauty and grace. In her monthly column, “In the Spirit,” her message to millions of black women was simple: “Love yourself.”

Even after she left the magazine several years ago, her “yes-you-can” aura has remained: In the movie Precious, Taylor makes a gauzy cameo at the beginning of the film as the fairy godmother who gives Precious the talismanic red scarf that reminds her, “You’re beautiful, too.”

That’s why it’s all the more heartbreaking to hear the 64-year-old Taylor share her story of a soul-crushing depression that crippled her as a child and continued to chip away at her polished public persona through her glory years at Essence. It worsened, she says, with the hormonal shifts that come with age.

“I began spiraling downward, downward, downward and further and further into a depression that I couldn’t pull myself out of,” says Taylor, now the founder and CEO of the National Cares Mentoring Movement.

Taylor has never shied away from revealing herself in her column. She has famously discussed growing up poor in East Harlem and being broke and a single mother in the ‘70s. However, she has never shared the naked self-doubt and sadness she experienced during her years at Essence.

“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.