The Harm of Stereotypes on the Lives of Black Women in relation to Healthcare and Mental Health
Fact: in the UK there is a significant discrepancy in the health outcomes of black women and white women. Black women are at a disproportionately higher risk from many chronic and debilitating conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. Furthermore, according to a Race Disparity Audit carried out in 2017, this group is the most likely to experience a mental disorder such as anxiety or depression. One of the main causal factors for these concerning facts that we really should have gotten over by now is stereotyping and the resulting inbuilt structural racism in society. Here I will outline what stereotypes are and the negative impact they have for black women in relation to existing health disparities in British society. This will make them easier to recognise and remove.
Stereotypes are oversimplified beliefs regarding the characteristics, behaviours, and attitudes of a particular group. We are all exposed to and learn stereotypes as we grow up that affect our judgements and behaviour consciously and subconsciously. These are an offshoot of natural psychological shortcuts that we have evolved to read situations quickly. They become harmful when applied to social groups in negative ways. For example, widely held stereotypes affecting underrepresented minorities. Black British women experience and intersection of stereotypes, and assumptions solely affecting this group, increasing marginalisation. This is a manifestation of institutional racism, the roots of which can be traced back to historical systematic oppression. This is significantly harmful in many ways including potential internalisation of the stereotype by targeted individuals, feeling threatened and anxious about the possibility of being judged in accordance with them and being discriminated against. Here we will consider the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype. We will look at the implications that this stereotype has for black women focussing on their health.
Black women in British society feel pressure from all angles to conform to this stereotype. Not only from society but also internalising these ideals of strength. This leads to a perception that showing pain and asking for help is a sign of weakness, so they may delay or not seek help when they need it as it makes them feel a sense of guilt, clashing with the internalised characteristics society has forced onto them. This can be compounded by the nature of help received. Doctors are, unfortunately more likely to misdiagnose and suggest the wrong treatment, for black patients compared to white patients. This could be due to conscious or subconscious racism and underrepresentation of black people in education about condition both for medical staff and the general population. This results in late personal and professional diagnosis of problems that leave black people more at risk. For black women this is made worse by the ‘Strong Black Woman’ stereotype. It can also be argued that the need to show strength is increased for any group with a history of subjugation and having to overcome discrimination. Also, if this stereotype is widely held, it will contribute to conscious or subconscious misdiagnosis, if doctors believe it. This could result in lower than necessary pain relief being prescribed. Or an internalisation of the ‘strength’ characteristic by the patient could result in a downplay of their symptoms when describing them, which could, again, result in misdiagnosis. This may reduce confidence in the healthcare system and prevent people from going back when they need to.
This is particularly significant when we consider the issue of mental health, an already stigmatised topic, which, when combined with the stereotypes black women face, makes it very difficult for them to access the help that they need. The same effects as other medical diagnosis are present here due to this ‘strength’ stereotype resulting in a reluctance to access help in the first place, a belief they shouldn’t need it or aren’t entitled to it, and misdiagnosis if symptoms are downplayed or doctors have inbuilt racial prejudices. This can impact the likelihood of patients continuing to seek the proper help. Comfort and a feeling of safety are paramount in accessing mental health services, if patients do not feel comfortable, they may withdraw from the process without accessing the help they deserve. To add another level of difficulty to this, as stated at the beginning, this group is the most likely to experience mental disorders including anxiety and depression. A link can be drawn here between the stereotypes held against black women and the wider black community and the resulting racism and discrimination that stems from this. Black women may also experience the added pressure of gender discrimination. This results in consistent higher levels of stress, the long term and short-term trauma, and emotional pressure can contribute to the formation and persistence of these disorders. Furthermore, conforming to the ‘strength’ stereotype would involve repressing emotions which has long term significant negative health outcomes.
Combating this would involve an education campaign that specifically targets dismantling the racist and prejudice ideals that stem from these stereotypes. The main problem with stereotypes a lot of the time is ignorance of their existence, by simply acknowledging this and actively checking yourself and being able to spot and educate others who are facilitating these ideals, the effects of stereotypes can be mitigated. Moreover, the images used in advertising for awareness of conditions in the population and in training health professionals should adequately reflect the diversity of British society, so all British people have equal and uninhibited access to the treatment they deserve. Healthcare and more specifically mental healthcare needs to be culturally inclusive, sensitive, and competent; it needs to be updated to address the needs of all groups. You can make sure your friends and colleagues know that they can talk to you at anytime and that you’re there to support them without judgement.
If we can form and maintain negative stereotypes we can dismantle them, we can take away their power by questioning them and we can stop them controlling our actions by refusing to let them do so.