Study provides new insights into how the idea of being a ‘strong Black woman’ could increase the risk of depression

New research indicates the belief that Black women are naturally strong and self-sacrificing is associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms in African American women in the United States.

The study, which was published in Sex Roles, suggests that self-silencing — or the inhibition of self-expression — is a key pathway between the concept of a “Strong Black Woman” and depressive symptoms.

“I became interested in this topic when I was a graduate student working on a research project that aimed to better understand gender role views of Black women,” said study author Jasmine Abrams, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and affiliate professor at the Yale University School of Public Health.

“When we were conducting focus group discussions, many women mentioned being Strong Black Women or looking up to Strong Black Women (in the form of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, friends, celebrities, etc.). What struck me about the discussions was how women discussed embodying this role – it was simultaneously discussed as aspirational and overwhelming.”

“Women spoke about how being strong helped their ancestors survive enslavement and Jim Crow and how it helps them navigate present day oppression and personal challenges. In the same breath they mentioned that the expectation of strength meant self-reliance, independence, and being overworked in service of others,” Abrams explained to PsyPost.

“I immediately thought about implications for physical and mental health and decided to design and conduct a new study to determine if women’s identification with being Strong Black women was related to depression symptoms and if so why.”

The new study of 194 participants — who all identified as “Strong Black Women” — provides more insights into the link between the concept and mental distress. Abrams and her colleagues found that self-silencing mediated the relationship between the need to showcase strength and depressive symptoms.

In other words, participants who agreed with statements such as “Black women have to be strong to survive” tended to also agree with self-silencing statements such as “In a close relationship, my responsibility is to make the other person happy” and “I rarely express my anger at those close to me,” which in turn was associated with greater depressive symptoms.

“Being a ‘Strong Black Woman’ has many benefits — but these benefits can, at times, come at an expense. The benefits are that that the cultural ideal helps women to cope with challenging circumstances, helps ensure survival of families/communities, and makes women feel connected to their culture,” Abrams told PsyPost.

“On the other hand, being a ‘Strong Black Woman’ can be related to increased stress and maladaptive coping that can result in depression symptoms. Specifically, the ‘self silencing’ aspect (e.g., holding in negative emotions, pretending to be happy or okay when you are really not) is a pathway from strength to depression.”

The results are in line with a previous study, which found that Black women who endorsed the view that they needed to be “Strong Black Women” reported receiving less emotional support from friends and family, while reporting higher levels of psychological distress.

Abrams and her colleagues initially recruited a larger number of Black women. But for their study, they only included women who self-identified as “Strong Black Women.”

“Although many Black women (about 80% in my study), identify as ‘Strong Black Women’, not all Black women identify in this way. As such, our results are not relevant to all Black women. Relatedly, we collected data from mostly heterosexual women living in Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. That said, Black women from other geographic regions or of other sexual orientations may have different experiences that were not captured in our data,” she explained.

“In addition, given that study participants have described their identification with this role as beneficial and harmful, it is possible that identification with this role may be related to both health promoting and health compromising behaviors. Thus, there are plenty of research questions that still need to be addressed,” Abrams added.

“What other negative health behaviors or outcomes are related to identifying with being a Strong Black Woman? Equally important, what positive health behaviors or outcomes are related to identifying with being a Strong Black Woman? How this can we use this information to promote more positive mental and physical health outcomes among Black women? What strengths of the Strong Black Woman identity exist and how can we leverage them to improve health?”

The study, “Underneath the Mask of the Strong Black Woman Schema: Disentangling Influences of Strength and Self-Silencing on Depressive Symptoms among U.S. Black Women“, was authored by Jasmine A. Abrams, Ashley Hill, and Morgan Maxwell.