Black Girls and Mental Health

Updated: May 19

An interview with Dr. Kimani Norrington - Sands

by Jamilah Pitts

I had the opportunity to have a necessary and enlightening conversation with Dr. Kimani Norrington - Sands, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Owner of Lifting As We Climb Consulting. We discussed the importance of mental health in communities of color, and focused specifically on mental health, wellness and blackgirlhood. This interview offers deep insight into the unique challenges that girls of color may face with regard to their mental health and wellness, the ways that myths around “angry” black women and girls may lead to a misunderstanding and misdiagnosis of young girls of color, and ultimately, how the impact of oppression and trauma related to that oppression may result in the silencing of girls of color. Dr. Norrington-Sands also offers suggestions and resources that will help communities better understand how to care for girls of color and how to prioritize their mental health and wellness.

What are some of the largest mental health challenges facing young girls of color?

There is not one single - issue or challenge that impacts girls of color. Instead, it is better to understand what Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw explains as “intersectionality”: the multiple forms of oppression that exist simultaneously for marginalized groups, such as young girls of color. While teenagers, generally, are impacted by mental health issues in this country, young girls of color face more extreme and particular risks. Trauma plays a significant role in their mental health, and for many young girls, they experience complex trauma. This means they might experience multiple forms of trauma at the same time.

In order to understand how the mental health of young girls is impacted, it is also necessary to understand the nuanced and deep social, racial and historical traumas that impact young girls of color. Young girls are susceptible to painful experiences on account of their gender identity, and also because of their race. Furthermore, young girls of color experience trauma that is the direct result of racism in this country, which impacts the rate at which they experience poverty, community violence, and racial discrimination. This compounded and complex experience weighs heavily on their mental psyche.

Additionally, black youth today, including black girls, are overexposed to images of racial trauma, which can spark post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Social media plays a huge role in black youth witnessing and being able to replay the killings of black men and women, and other forms of racial trauma and discrimination at an alarming rate.

What additional factors contribute to the mental health challenges that impact young girls of color?

Oversexualization. For instance, Black girls are often viewed as older than they are, aggressive, and sexually promiscuous even in the face of data which counters these stereotypes. These stereotypes may influence misperceptions that Black girls do not experience pain, are not worthy of protection, and are the blame for misbehavior directed towards them.They are more likely to be victimized sexually, and they are more likely to be victims of commercial sex trafficking. For young girls of color, there are links between community violence, violence within their homes and sex trafficking. This undoubtedly impacts the mental health of our girls.

What can mental illness look like in young and teenage girls of color? How might the way that mental health challenges/illnesses manifest in other groups look differently than that in girls of color?

It is important to recognize that mental health challenges/illnesses can, and often, look and manifest differently in girls of color. It is also important to understand the history of racism, discrimination and oppression of women and girls of color that also impact how society receives and portrays girls’ behavior. The world has a way of making black girls feel that they are always wrong. Because there is a great deal of stigma around mental health in communities of color, and because black women and girls, particularly, are often dismissed or labeled as “harsh”, “angry”, “mean”, “hostile”, “aggressive”, or as having an “attitude”; it is important to understand the ways in which behaviors are actually an indicator that there may be an underlying mental health battle. It is also important to understand that mental health struggles may manifest differently in girls of color than the way it manifests in white girls.

There is a range in how mental health illnesses may present in teenage girls of color. Some girls may internalize their symptoms more, which can look like social withdrawal, depression, cutting and other behaviors that may not be as evident. Many girls may be masking how they are feeling, and as a result are “flying under the radar”. Because they are not “acting out”, people tend not to be as concerned about these girls, though they are still suffering, and likely in pain. Externalizing behaviors, which are important to note because they are often dismissed as stereotypical behaviors of girls of color, include: physical or verbal aggression, not going to class, consistently failing, “talking back”.

Because such behaviors are rooted in harmful projections, stereotypes and ideas that are rooted in “the angry black woman” beliefs and stereotypes, many girls whose behaviors are the result of mental illnesses, such as PTSD, depression, or anxiety are often misdiagnosed or dismissed altogether. A white child who is very active or aggressive may be diagnosed as ADHD, but a black girl exhibiting the same behaviors might be labeled as “defiant”, “disrespectful”, which leads to different outcomes in how children are treated. This leads to different levels of empathy.

What are some of the major issues plaguing communities of color that subsequently affect mental health in young girls?

Combatting basic survival needs and a general concern for safety as well as institutional racism in schools, healthcare, child protective services, judicial system, etc.

What are some of the barriers that exist in treating young girls of color?

Complex histories rooted in oppression (e.g. racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, poverty, violence, lack of access to health care), and dismissive labeling and stereotypes.

Ultimately, one of the largest barriers that exist in treating young girls of color is the perception of how they are seen. This is rooted in histories of silencing black women and girls of color through labeling, stereotyping and diminishing their voices and emotions by deeming them “angry”. These measures of silencing and dismissing are further carried out when they exist in schools. Girls who exhibit behaviors that, despite their race, might be viewed as symptoms of mental health illnesses are disciplined, punished or pushed out of schools when they are deemed “defiant” or “disrespectful”.

Additional barriers include:

  • Girls not feeling that they are accepted or cared for

  • “Blaming the victim” mentalities (rather than identifying a root cause of girls’ behaviors, girls are instead blamed and they do not receive the treatment and help they need.)

  • Misdiagnosis and responses that perpetuate trauma (eg school to prison pipeline, harsher punishments in school)

  • Inequities and disparities in the Healthcare System & communities of colors having a historical mistrust of healthcare systems due to racism and discrimination (eg. Henrietta Lacks, The Tuskegee Experiment)

  • Stigma around mental health & treatment -- in our community, there is the message that if you talk to a therapist, they might betray you; or the belief that the suggestion of therapy means they are “crazy”

  • Even if the person looks like them, there is a distrust because the person is seen as a representative of a system that is designed to people of color

  • Beliefs that mental illness can be “prayed away”

  • Girls of color feeling isolated when they do share their mental health struggles

  • Schools not understanding how to engage parents (parents may not feel welcomed, or may be feeling judged; parents may have their own histories of being traumatized by the school system)

  • Schools not focusing on mental wellness

  • Parents’ fear around Child Protective Services being called or having to become involved

  • Stigma around mental health that exists in communities of color

  • Schools can also be sites of trauma; school can be a trauma trigger