Helping Black Women Heal Through a Womanist Mental Health and Healing Framework


Helping to heal

What does mental well-being and healing look like for black women? How do we as clinicians support the mental health and healing of strong black women? I posture that a Womanist Mental Health and Healing Framework (Melton, 2022) can uniquely address these critical questions. Clinical psychologist Carmen B. Williams (2005) argues that “Womanism offers a model that addresses the simultaneity of cultural oppressions experienced by African American women. It is a model in which race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are understood as interactive, not fragmented, in women’s lives.” This article will explore key tenants of this model and offers considerations as we provide therapy to black women.

Clinical psychologist, public theologian, and ecumenical minister Chanequa Walker-Barnes (2014) argues, “Ask anyone … to describe Black women and the most common answer is likely to be strong.” The women that fall in line with the Strong Black Woman role are those who spend their lives giving to others—in time, money, resources, service, and caregiving—getting little in return. These women take pride in being independent and not having to rely on persons or oppressive systems to survive, while maintaining their emotions no matter what storm of life they may be enduring. These women “… meet the needs of others without appearing to have any needs of her own” (Abrams et al., 2019).

Black women may grow to have different “versions” of themselves in order to fit the various roles and responsibilities placed on them by society, as meeting these expectations “may require hiding behind a mask(s)” (Lashley et al., 2017). Behind the masks of a woman identified by the SBW trope may be mental illnesses such as depression (MDD or dysthymia), anxiety (GAD), and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Licensed clinical social worker and professor Selena Rodgers (2021) contends that, “… Black females 18 years of age and older reported sadness (12.6%), hopelessness (7.1%), worthlessness (4.6%), and felt that everything is an effort (14.1%)” (CDC, 2021). Watson and Hunter (2015) cosign the anxiety and depression-related diagnosis, as they articulate, “recently, researchers have found endorsement of the SBW Schema to predict higher anxiety and depression symptoms.”

It is crucial for clinicians to understand this trope and how it can function in the lives of Black women, as one may unintentionally do more harm as they praise the SBW’s love and care for others, inadvertently condoning her self-neglect. It is also critical for the clinician not to consider a black woman who seems to be well put together and helping the world as automatically not struggling emotionally or mentally—particularly when, in fact, underneath the mask of a woman in the SBW role can be depression and anxiety.

Body-based, trauma-informed healing

The first key step towards mental well-being and healing for women who identify with the SBW role is to learn and safely implement body-based, trauma-informed skills once safety in the room has been established. As trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem (2017) argues, healing happens in our body rather than our head, especially when we are able to be grounded or settled. Settling and grounding is not healing, but it provides a safe foundation for deep mental health work. There are many body-based skills and physical exercises, such as humming, deep breathing, slow rocking, and grounding or anchoring (or settling) your body, which can help foster the process of healing (Menakem, 2017). The woman you are serving likely already has some of these skills engrained, which affords you as the clinician the opportunity to help her recognize her skills within to engage more in preparing for her trauma work.

Black women’s esteem

After beginning body-based work in the therapeutic process, along with the woman learning about trauma in the session, the next task in this model for attending to women with the SBW traits is to focus on the woman healing her own self-esteem and building redemptive self-love (Floyd-Thomas, 2006). bell hooks (2004) helps one to consider ways of repairing and healing Black Women’s self-esteem in her book, Rock My Soul. She offers pathways to do so, including living consciously, with awareness of self, others, and the world and taking responsibility for self. Accepting self is an essential first part of this process (hooks, 2004). Black women learning to accept themselves means being able to look in the mirror and tell the hard, rarely whispered truths—about themselves, but also about the valleys, trauma, and pains of life. Then, women who subscribe to the SBW role must choose to accept themselves as priceless and beautiful; they must notice all the beautiful traits within–even those birthed through pain.

To take responsibility for oneself is not only noting faults; it also includes noting the ways that one has not only been obliged, but sought excellence in living from the Strong Black Woman trope.

As we build the foundation of body-based work, education, and self-acceptance as part of the therapeutic journey, a solid foundation for taking responsibility for oneself and living consciously is set. To take responsibility for oneself is not only noting faults; it also includes noting the ways that one has not only been obliged, but sought excellence in living from the Strong Black Woman trope. Acknowledging carrying SBW traits is critical as it will allow for healing and living healthier; coming out of ways that have been most detrimental. Accepting responsibility for unhealthy mindsets and ways of living connects to living consciously, which speaks to being aware of what it means to be black and a Woman. As noted by clinical psychologist Na’im Akbar, it is important for Black women who have been socialized into the SBW trop to learn more about their heritage and ancestors, especially as so much of what Americans have learned in the past was inaccurate or incomplete. Then as one becomes more aware of self, an SBW can live out loud which means … owning and accepting the fullness of who she is, including exploring her contributions to fellow black women and the black community (Akbar, 1996).

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Assistant professor, researcher, and DEI consultant Qiana M. Cutts (2017) notes that, “black women must be seen and see themselves as sacred. Self-love (and esteem) must be cultivated and detrimental aspects of the SBW must be deconstructed and replaced with a more balanced identity of being black, strong, and woman,” which is also a core belief within womanist thought. Therefore, it is crucial that the clinician facilitate the woman in sharing her valleys, trauma, and pain in ways that are safe for each individual woman. It is also necessary to encourage and be open to bearing witness as the woman explores and re-learns her history as a black woman in America.

This may require you to point her to authors who talk about black history in its fullness, which would include using liberative, healthy, and healing language concerning black people in America rather than elevating others or White Supremacy in America. While you may point her in the right direction, it is vital not to teach her black history, but encourage her own learning. Even more important for the clinician is ensuring that you can see the black woman you are working with—in her fullness and as sacred. If this is not the case, a referral would be more beneficial for the woman, as her assigned clinician must be able to truly see her in order to help her see herself.

Communal support is a must

While the tools and skills listed are excellent starting places, it is essential when making major life changes to have a strong support system. As stated by clinical psychologist, sacred artist, professor, and ordained minister, Thema Bryant-Davis (2005), “Sister friends can be crucial in assisting African American women and women of ethnically diverse backgrounds to face, address, and overcome major transitions including stress and traumatic stress.”

Bryant-Davis (2005) expounds on the importance of sister friends for the healing of Black women:

For African American women, social support is an important component for healing and empowerment. While sister friends who may be siblings, extended family members, grandmothers, aunts, church mothers, teachers, coaches, mentors and the like, it is essential to have an effective and healthy sister friendship … for social support to be effective, it needs to be mutually beneficial, grounded in common values/priorities, based in authenticity, acceptance, truth-telling, and growth promoting.

With this in mind, an important part of learning and truly seeing this woman you are helping is to learn who her sister friends are, and to help her find healthy ways to cultivate meaningful connections. Exploring the woman’s faith and spirituality, including the ways she may worship, is also essential. Not knowing her tribe, crew, sister friends, faith practices, or support system means that you are missing out on important information in understanding and being able to best support this black woman client.

While a healthy support system is essential, part of living out the role of the Strong Black Woman is that family members, co-workers, fellow church members, and others may be used to the “strength” and “do it all” mentality of women within the SBW trope. In working towards mental well-being and healing, the changes a woman who identifies with the SBW role makes will create a ripple effect amongst her inner “circle.” Therefore, tension may arise as the black woman begins to care more for herself and shifts priorities, and others may have to carry their own load, learn skills to help themselves, and negotiate new relationships. As clinicians, we must prepare the woman for the tension and changes and support her as she may experience many losses and challenges as she embarks on her healing journey.

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Black women who have lived out traits of the Strong Black Woman trope do not have to subscribe to being within the Strong Black Woman role forever. As we provide psychotherapy to black women, and even all black females, it is critical that we consider these principles/suggestions as to not cause further harm by cheering on SBW traits. We not only must help them to challenge the unhealthy patterns, but be able to see Black women as sacred. As clinicians, we must help guide them to learn about their history as a black woman in America, as they come to the truth that they can put down the masks, resign from task overload, take the time to address and heal mental health challenges, and love themselves. Black women surely are deserving of clinical care that is grounded in womanist liberative thought and is crafted specifically for them.

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Melanie Melton, MA, ThM, is an AAMFT Professional Member holding the Clinical Fellow designation. She is a native of Texas and committed and passionate in supporting others as they walk their journey of healing from traumatic events and flourishing post-trauma. Melton holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Family Community Services from East Carolina University and Master of Marriage Family Therapy degree from Appalachian State University. She also earned her Master of Divinity degree from Shaw University Divinity School and Master of Theology degree from Duke Divinity School. Melton is a North Carolina Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, author, business owner, and an ordained minister. She has published a book, Queen, Let’s Heal: Seven Day Devotional for Black Women, along with the companion journal. She is the founder and owner of Now, Healing Begins, which provides mental health and spiritual wellness education, especially to the black community. If you would like to connect and learn more, contact bookmelaniemelton@gmail.com or visit www.nowhealingbegins.com

Abrams, J. A., Hill, A., & Maxwell, M. (2019). Underneath the mask of the strong black woman schema: Disentangling influences of strength and self-silencing on depressive  symptoms among U.S. black women. Sex Roles, 80, 517-26.

Akbar, N. (1996). Breaking the psychological chains of slavery. Tallahassee, FL: Mind Productions & Associates.

Bryant-Davis, T. (2005). Coping strategies of African American adult survivors of childhood violence. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(4), 409-414. https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.36.4.409

Bryant-Davis, T. (2013) Sister friends: A reflection and analysis of the therapeutic role of sisterhood in African American women’s lives,” Women & Therapy, 36(1-2), 110-120. doi: 10.1080/02703149.2012.720906

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). Table A-7c, 1-4 as quoted in Selena T. Rodgers, New wave of post traumatic slave syndrome survivors. Black Women Resisters in Academia 21, no. 2/3, 438-459. doi: 10.18060/24159.

Cutts, M. Q. (2017). Black women’s sexuality and relationships, in Evans, S., Bell, K., & Burton, N. (Eds.). Black women’s mental health: Balancing strength & vulnerability. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Floyd-Thomas, S. M. (2006). Mining the motherlode: Methods in womanist ethics. Pilgrim Press.

hooks, bell. (2004). Rock my soul: Black people and self-esteem (Fiest Washington Square Press trade paberback edition). Washington Square Press.

Lashley, M. B., Marshall, V., & Mclaurin-Jones, T. (2017). Looking through the window. In Black women’s mental health: Balancing strength & vulnerability (Eds.). Stephanie Y. Evans, Kanika Bell, and Nsenga K. Burton. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Melton, M. (2022). Strong black women, harmful theology, and healing: A Womanist Mental Health and Healing Framework. Duke University Divinity School Thesis.

Menakem, R. (2017). My grandmother’s hands: Racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies. Central Recovery Press.

Rodgers, S. T. (2021). New wave of post traumatic slave syndrome survivors. Black Women Resisters in Academia, 21 nos. 2/3, 438-59. doi: 10.18060/24159.

Walker-Barnes, C. (2014). Too heavy a yoke: Black women and the burden of strength. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

Watson, N. N., & Hunter, C. D. (2015). Anxiety and depression among African American women: The costs of strength and negative attitudes toward psychological help-seeking. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 21(4), 604–612. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/10.1037/cdp0000015. As cited n J. A. Abrams, A. Hill, and M. Maxwell, (2019). Underneath the mask of the strong black woman schema: Disentangling influences of strength and self-silencing on depressive symptoms among U.S. black Women, Sex Roles, 80, 517-526. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/10.1007/s11199-018-0956-y.

Williams, C. B. (2005). Counseling African American women: Multiple identities-multiple constraints. Journal of Counseling & Development, 83(3), 278-283. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6678.2005.tb00343.x

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