There are many issues of pressing concern for Black Christians in America, such as ensuring Black lives matter in our churches, reaching Black youth with the gospel, discipling the next generation of Black church leaders, battling white Christian nationalism, and identifying ways the church can address the impact of racial disparities in our country.

But a concern in my own life as a Black Christian woman is examining how the church can help Black women remove the damaging mantle of the “strong Black woman.” Living by this narrative can result in destructive and deadly mental and physical health outcomes for Black women. Add to these negative outcomes the stigma associated with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and the result is too many Black women hiding their true concerns for fear of stigmatization.

However, the church is uniquely positioned to help Black women seek both therapeutic and theological support as we face and address our mental health challenges.

Researchers consistently identify three characteristics associated with the strong Black woman framework: emotional restraint, independence, and self-sacrifice. Strength is a badge of honor Black women have worn for generations.

This narrative likely arose from the personal and cultural experiences of Black women (e.g., during the centuries of race-based chattel slavery that saw us maintaining the family structure while enduring abuse and torture) and the societal demands on Black women (e.g., fighting race- and gender-based discrimination during Jim Crow and aiding the civil rights movement). We embraced being strong out of fear of appearing weak.

For too many years, I embraced the ideology of the strong Black woman. She could “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.” She did not need to ask for help because she could do it all—she was a successful wife, mother, professional, ministry leader, volunteer, and friend. She possessed “Black girl magic” and inspired everyone in her sphere of influence. I wanted to be this strong Black woman, so I became her. Like so many of my ancestors, I wore my strength as a badge of honor.

Unfortunately, this strength narrative did not allow for the expression of my vulnerabilities or flaws. Instead, I ignored my legitimate mental health concerns in favor of presenting an image of strength to others. I believed the lie that I could not openly express my struggles with depression and anxiety. I hid my mental health challenges in an effort to maintain the façade of being a woman who had it all together.

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Like me, Black women who subscribe to the strong Black woman ideology may experience acute mental health challenges. For example, a recent research study revealed that depression may manifest differently for Black women. According to the study, rather than reporting feelings of sadness and hopelessness, Black women report self-criticism, self-blame, and irritability as the hallmarks of depression.

The findings in this study align with my personal experiences. I did not believe I had the luxury, as a Black woman, of feeling sad or hopeless—especially in my public-facing life—because those realities speak to weakness, not strength. Consequently, I resorted to criticizing and blaming myself for the problems in my life, which only exacerbated my depression and anxiety.

Aligning my life to this ideology was killing me—literally. I sought to personify the strong Black woman at the expense of my mental and physical health. Living by the narrative of being a woman who could suppress her emotions while independently handling tasks for the benefit of others, whether at home, work, church, or in the community, was damaging and dangerous for me.

More than one doctor informed me of the importance of managing my mental health, which was having a direct impact on my physical health. Over several years of living the strong Black woman life, I received multiple diagnoses for maladies that could eventually take my life if I did not get my mental health issues under control.

In 2015 and 2016, I faced a bout of severe depression. The self-blame was constant. I just could not seem to shake off the feelings of exhaustion and defeat. I criticized myself because I had difficulty functioning normally. I put on a fake smile while I was in public and continued to serve in my church and actively participate in ministry as I kept my mental health struggles to myself. I knew there was a stigma about mental illness in many churches, and I honestly did not know how my church family would react if they found out I was struggling with depression and suicidal ideation.

One day in 2016, when someone at church asked me how I was doing, I did not want to be strong anymore. I responded, “I’m struggling with depression.” It was not easy to admit I was struggling, but I was tired of faking it—I was tired of trying to appear to be something I was not. I was not okay, and I realized that was okay.

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To my surprise, my honesty and vulnerability that day opened the door to my healing. Here’s why: My church family did not shame or shun me—instead, they embraced and supported me when I needed them most. My pastor and elders rallied around me and encouraged me to seek both spiritual and psychological assistance. I shudder to think what might have happened if I had not received their love and support.

By letting me take off my strong Black woman cape, my church family gave me a chance to live, heal, and see my value beyond an unrealistic and unhealthy pursuit of strength. And they continue to do so when I face setbacks in my mental health journey.

I believe churches, with proper training and resources, can be a source of community and support for Black women—and all women—who need to remove the mantle of strength and replace it with the blessing of empathy and compassion.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), each year, 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness, and 1 in 20 adults experience serious mental illness. These statistics reveal a startling reality—our churches are most likely filled with people who are struggling with mental illness. Even as we profess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we still face anxiety, depression, and a myriad of other psychological challenges because we live in a fallen world.

I want to offer a few ways churches can help Black women who are struggling with mental health issues resulting from subscribing to the strong Black woman narrative.

1. Teach and preach about the reality of mental health issues—that it is okay to not be okay.

The Bible is replete with examples of people facing mental health challenges:

  • Cain was “very angry, and his face was downcast” when God accepted Abel and his gift but did not accept Cain and his gift (Gen. 4:3–5). Cain was disheartened—so much so that he ultimately murdered his brother (Gen. 4:8).
  • After years of barrenness, “in her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly,” for a son (1 Sam. 1:10).
  • In Psalm 143, King David expressed his distress: “Come quickly, Lord, and answer me, for my depression deepens. Don’t turn away from me, or I will die” (v. 7, NLT).
  • Jesus said his soul was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, prior to his crucifixion (Matt. 26:38).
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These examples offer an important reminder: Our spirits are sometimes disturbed and devastated by the situations we face because we live in a sin-filled world. The prevalence of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and other challenges in the lives of biblical characters mirrors the reality of these challenges in our modern-day society and churches.

By normalizing mental health concerns, churches will allow Black women to feel less isolated and more comfortable acknowledging their own struggles.

2. Emphasize community as essential to the Christian life.

In Genesis 2:18 and Romans 12:4–5, we learn about the importance of community. God created us for community—to live life together, not in isolation. If a woman knows she can rely on her church community to stand in the gap for her when she’s struggling, then she will be better able to address her mental health concerns.

By letting me honestly express my mental health struggles and showing me it is okay to not be okay, my church family saved my life. I did not feel so alone. Churches can stand in the gap for those who may not be able to pray, seek, or worship God for themselves. Churches have an opportunity to literally save lives.

3. Offer empathy and compassion to Black women who share about their mental health challenges.

The church played a major role in my healing process by allowing me to express my vulnerabilities and by offering me empathy and compassion. I believe the church can serve as an important part of the healing process for so many of my sisters who also need to refuse to play into the strong Black woman narrative.

One way church leaders can show empathy and compassion is by being open about their own mental health issues. Another way is by readily embracing, rather than shunning, a woman who shares her mental health concerns. Churches can provide a safe place for women to remove their superhero capes by offering encouragement and support.

4. Invest time and resources into supporting women who are facing mental health challenges.

Finally, churches can offer local and online psychological resources to its members. I am not suggesting that churches must take on the responsibility of providing mental health services; however, churches can equip themselves to readily offer referrals and lists of resources to members who are facing mental health challenges.

Churches with ministry capacity and financial resources can offer training to their leaders—both ministerial and administrative—on the basics of mental health. Furthermore, those leaders who provide spiritual counseling to church members should receive more extensive training on recognizing mental health concerns. This investment could save lives.

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Churches are uniquely positioned to give Black women permission to let go of the strong Black woman narrative and to exchange it for the reality that it’s okay to not be okay. Through community, empathy, and compassion, the church can help women find true healing and identity in Christ.

T. K. Floyd Foutz is an attorney turned Bible teacher. In addition to mentoring and speaking, she teaches Bible studies online and at her local church in San Antonio.

[ This article is also available in Português and Français. ]