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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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.

The 21st century has been good for many black women who have followed in the footsteps of women like Taylor and Williams. Two of the world’s most visible and accomplished women are African American—one in the White House, the other on daytime television. Black women are going to college and starting businesses in record numbers. We’re also hammering away at the glass ceiling and more of us are rising into management positions. And a few, like Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox—and subject of a glowing New York Times profile last week—make it to the very top.

But success can come with a price. We’re the first to arrive and the last to leave as we grind through 10-hour work days. We’re the ones everybody relies on—first at work, then after hours during the second shift of home and family time. We work ourselves almost literally “to death” especially now during this economic storm. Or for some of us, we “feel” like we have to continue to be the “superwoman.”

“My sadness and depression came out of giving myself to my career before I would give myself to myself,” says Taylor. “Everything for Essence; nothing for me.”

Even as our collective accomplishments have bubbled to the surface, the pain is often simmering just below it. Certainly many of us have found happiness and joy in our lives, whether singled or partnered, mothers or not, with or without that high-status, six-figure career. But too many others are lonely, sad or angry—and too proud or too afraid to talk about it.

We are human and not dealing with our stuff. Highly successful people have broken down in tears and told me, says Williams, “It’s like you propped up a full-length mirror and showed me the cracks in our façade.”

The new campaign is designed to promote acceptance of mental health problems within the African-American community by encouraging open conversations. Taylor says that taking a hard look at the past was the first step in her healing.

“My mother was really depressed all of my life, and I thought it had to do with me,” she says. “So one day my uncle straightened me out. He said, ‘Susan, it’s not you. Babs has been depressed since she was a little child. So don’t take it personally.’ That was clarifying and also liberating.”

“I sought help, and everything began to unfold,” Taylor continues. “Hiding sadness makes you more and more sad because it closes you off to your healing. Giving voice to what you’re feeling is part of the healing.”

Linda Villarosa worked for many years with Susan L. Taylor at Essence. She teaches journalism at the City College of New York and contributes frequently to The Root.

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