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Black women suffer disproportionately from ‘superwoman schema’

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(NEW YORK) — When her firstborn child estranged herself from the family after getting married, Glenda Boone, 61, thought her daughter’s new husband was to blame for turning her child against her.

It took Boone’s second daughter, Lauren, 32, to explain to her that even though their mother and father were always physically present and provided for their children, they never felt she was emotionally present. Her children felt alienated from her, and their mental health suffered because of it, according to Lauren.

“I never thought about taking care of my mental health because my generation was taught when you talked about mental health, you automatically thought mental illness,” Glenda, a marketing executive, told Deborah Roberts during a “Good Morning America” interview. “So, for me, it was more of a suppression. From [my time as] a small child, even my emotions, you suppress them. You suck it up.”

Black women in America are disproportionately burdened with the mental health syndrome known as superwoman schema, or SWS. It involves the perceived obligation to quell emotion, convey strength, suppress dependence and vulnerability, and to prioritize caregiving over self-care, according to the National Institutes of Health. SWS can cause severe mental distress, but African Americans are less likely to receive mental health services compared to their white counterparts, according to 2022 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“’Everything that comes my way, I should be able to handle it,’” Dr. Zoeann Finzi-Adams, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor at Howard University, said when describing the typical thought process of a person dealing with SWS. “And that’s exhausting because no one is able to do everything. No one is able to, and that is such a big barrier for getting any kind of support.”

Former Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams, who speaks openly about her history of depression, said mental health struggles can look different in women of color.

“Irritability is a missed symptom of depression. Because we think depression is just sadness,” Williams said. “Once I started getting in therapy more consistently, it started giving me language to everything that I internalize.”

Glenda Boone said that her daughters suggested she find support by scheduling her first meeting with a mental health therapist. If she didn’t, Glenda knew she was at risk of losing Lauren, too. She said it took a while to find the right therapist, and to let her guard down during therapy sessions. But once she did, Glenda said she felt a freedom that she had never before experienced.

“I learned how to remove the mask,” she said. “I was allowed to free myself, release myself. The mask of superwoman was mine. I could be all things to all people …. But my daughters let me know, and Lauren in particular … ‘You were there. But you weren’t present.’”

For her part, Lauren Boone says she began to see a change in her mother that she’d longed for nearly her entire life.

“I felt like the little girl in me was getting what she always wanted from her mom, which was the emotional connection,” said Lauren, who is also a mental health care clinician.

Williams said she can relate to the liberation felt after seeking help from a mental health expert.

“There is strength in vulnerability. I can’t tell you how strong you are when you can say, ‘I need help,’ versus thinking your strength is acting out,” Williams said. “The quality of life is so much better when you’re not triggered all the time.”

Lauren Boone saw so much improvement in her mother that she even convinced her to share her progress on Lauren’s YouTube channel. Though Glenda Boone is still estranged from her oldest daughter, she hopes one day that her firstborn will see the progress that she’s made and feel comfortable enough to have a conversation with her.

“We think that everything’s fine with our child,” Glenda said. “So, when stuff happens, normally, it’s a crisis, so we think it’s that event that caused it when in actuality, it wasn’t. Our children might have been trying to communicate something to us before and we weren’t listening.”


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