It’s not uncommon for Black women — myself included — to relate deeply to women on television these days. From Issa Dee (Issa Rae) on Insecure, to Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) on This Is Us, or Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley) and Charley Bordelon West (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) on Queen Sugar, it seems like Black women are able to find pieces of themselves and their own story within depictions of TV characters now more than ever before. One topic that today’s television shows are discussing more frequently is Black women’s journey with mental health.
Black-ish — an ABC sitcom that centers on a modern Black family, exploring race, religion and everyday Blackness – has tackled the subject of postpartum depression. Rainbow “Bow” Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a quirky, spirited and strong wife of Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson). She’s often found cracking corny jokes and embarrassing her four kids in ways that only parents can. However, in the second episode of the show’s fourth season, she finds herself emotionally exhausted and unable to connect to her old self after giving birth to the newest in the Johnson clan, DeVante. Writhing in intangible pain, awash with unrelenting ennui and drained from her usual sunny disposition, Bow — and consequently the viewers — are forced to understand how this particular mental illness can cripple everyday life.
“Do you think this is easy for me?” Bow tells her mother-in-law, Ruby (Jenifer Lewis), during a tense confrontation. “Motherhood is the most natural thing for a woman. And I’ve had four kids, and somehow, I am struggling right now. I cannot seem to make enough milk, I feel filled with anxiety, I feel weak, I feel embarrassed because of all the things I can’t do — and you are making me feel so much worse.”
Ross is masterful in pulling emotion into a scene that so poignantly tells the untold story of thousands of Black mothers. Additionally, the scene reflects the role of Black dads and husbands, and how they can be support systems to their partners during mentally trying times. Although the topic is no laughing matter, it was refreshing to witness creators of comedy tend to the topic of mental illness, one condition specific to women, with tenderness, responsibility and a few laughs to make it easily digestible for the audience.
BET’s Being Mary Jane packed an emotional punch with its suicide narrative in a season three episode titled “Sparrow.” News anchor Mary Jane Paul’s (Gabrielle Union) friend Dr. Lisa Hudson (Latarsha Rose), suffers from severe depression as a result of sexual trauma in her childhood. Lisa first introduced the topic in season two during a suicide attempt via an overdose of medication, but she survives after Mary Jane shoves her hand down her throat in an effort to save her. After that incident, Lisa quietly wrestles with her dark thoughts until, coupled with the painful reality of unrequited love and losing Mary Jane as a friend, she dies by suicide.
According to the CDC, 10.3 percent of Black women ages 20-34 died from suicide in 2015. After also taking into account the disparities resulting from the historical traumas that make Black women particularly more vulnerable to mental illness, these numbers are rattling. However, these relatable characters on award-winning shows help normalize the idea of seeking help.
For instance, on Queen Sugar, Charley attends therapy to cope with her past traumas. These depictions of Black women disrupts the “strong Black woman” stereotype by redefining the idea of strength as someone who is open and willing to confront their mental health issues and ask for help.
On the other side of this conversation is ABC’s new hit A Million Little Things. Rome Howard (Romany Malco) attempts suicide, but fails after getting news that his friend John died by suicide. Rome’s wife, Regina Howard (Christina Moses), however, is none the wiser about her husband’s past struggle with suicidal ideation, until season one, episode six, when she finds his suicide note.
In a heartbreaking scene, Rome confesses his struggles, and his wife is confused and upset.”No, I don’t understand!” she shouted as she ripped up the note. “How could I possibly understand this?!”
This scene is a testament to Black women, who sometimes have to tune in more closely to see the signs of mental illness in the people they love, including Black men, whose pain is often repressed and hidden as a result of the subconscious impact of toxic masculinity.
“I need you to hear me,” Regina ultimately tells Rome. “You are not the best part of my life. You are my life, and I will not lose you.”
These kinds of frank conversations with loved ones are happening in households across the country. Finally, these experiences are being showcased in entertainment accessible right from our living rooms. This can only advance the conversations around Black women’s mental health in our communities. Time will tell if it may even help save lives.