Why We Need To See More Black Women In Therapy On TV

black women in therapy
PHOTO: HBO

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I need therapy. And I've known for at least the last five years of my life.

As the stress of young adulthood really began taking its toll on me towards the end of college, I found myself having panic attack after panic attack and they definitely weren’t pretty. But, unfortunately, neither were the moments that soon followed. 

I mentioned my anxiety and the idea of going to therapy to my then-boyfriend. He promptly laughed at me. Not an uncomfortable, “I don’t know what to say...” laugh. Or even the shocked, “You’re joking, right?” kind. Nope. Instead, his laugh was so hard you would’ve thought I was Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip.  

According to him, I seemed “too happy” and “successful” to have any sort of mental illness (i.e. my Instagram profile made it look like I was having the time of my life). After seeing the expressionless look on my face, he made a poor attempt to backtrack his statements, but the damage was done. I’d been stigmatized. His reaction reminded me that I was raised in a culture that sees therapy as the last resort for a weak, desperate person, who clearly doesn’t know Jesus. Hence why I still haven't been to therapy and am now single.

Like most millennials, I find comfort in fictional narratives. Films and TV shows play a huge role in my life and I feel understood when I see characters going through the same stressful situations I am in real life. But seeing Black women in therapy — or their mental health discussed at all — on TV is about as rare of a sighting as seeing Beyoncé’s twins, and I’m left with no example of what to do next in my own life.

This is incredibly frustrating given Black women are amongst the highest group of people suffering from mental illness. In fact, Black Americans are 20% more likely than the general population to develop mental health problems, with Black women in particular being more likely to experience physical symptoms related to mental health issues. And yet, only a quarter of us seek help compared to 40% of white Americans, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness

Instead of seeing Black women get help on TV shows, viewers see them constantly portrayed as the “strong” friend. The ones expected to hold it together through even the most harrowing situations and who are forced to put aside their issues for the greater good of others’ wellbeing.

Just take Dr. Eva Fletcher on BET’s college-centric drama The Quad, who has slowly become addicted to anti-anxiety medication due to constantly having to save face in front of her university naysayers. No one says, “You ok, sis?” even though she’s clearly going through a lot. Likewise, Olivia Pope on Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder’s Annalise Keating have both been repeatedly forced to brush off their severe post-traumatic stress (i.e. multiple deaths, kidnappings, etc.) season after season in favor of their careers and the feelings of their “friends.” And I’ve just about had it with these narratives.  

Now, I’m not suggesting that everything be all sunshine and flowers for women of color on TV — because what’s a good show without some drama?  But I’m tired of watching women who look like me suffer episode after episode, with no sort of healthy recourse.

Black women, like myself, are running around thinking they have to go through life carrying the world on their shoulders with no help because of some made-up notion that we’re all supposed to be above mental health issues. 

But you know what? I'm tired of being the strong friend. And I want TV shows to allow characters like Eva, Olivia and Annalise the same opportunity to exhale and get help. 

Fortunately, there has been some positive portrayals of Black women and mental health on TV over the years. Grey’s Anatomy has done a decent job of exploring anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder through Dr. Maggie Pierce’s and Dr. Miranda Bailey’s storylines, though both were background arcs in the overall series. Another positive moment can be found in HBO’s Insecure, which touched on mental illness and therapy in Seasons 1 and 2, though the storyline got off to a bit of a rocky start.

Initially, like my ex-boyfriend, Molly likened therapy to "paying for a fake friend" when her best friend Issa suggested she go speak to someone about the problems she’d been having. Molly’s reaction was of course, disheartening and rooted in outdated notions, though it was nothing I haven’t seen before — onscreen and off.

But instead of just stopping the discussion there, the series made sure to take the narrative a step further. In the Season 2 premiere Molly sat front and center on a therapist’s plush couch and to my surprise I saw no jokes on Twitter about her being “weak” or “desperate” for taking the necessary steps to clean up her messy life. And I couldn’t be more proud of that image.

Does this mean there’s no more work left to be done or that all stigma surrounding mental health and black women is gone? Most definitely not. But the more we talk about therapy, depression, anxiety, and mental health in general, the less taboo the topics will become. And what better time or place to start than right here, right now, on TV with Black women. 

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