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.
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.