Black girls and women talk about our health all the time – the latest trends on exercise and nutrition are popular topics of conversation. When the need arises, we also talk about physical illnesses with relative comfort. If a loved one falls sick, we know the right words and actions that will provide comfort and aid in their time of need. The same applies to those within our broader communities. Phrases such as “you are in my thoughts and prayers” are uttered almost automatically.
Yet when it comes to mental health the rhythm breaks and our reflexes reach a screeching halt. We barely have the vocabulary to talk about the nuances of our emotions much less awareness of how to navigate the complexities of mental health. It’s time for that to change.
We need to talk about mental health as both a distinct element of our health and as an integral part of our holistic wellbeing.
First question – what is mental health? It’s not any one thing. Mental health is a spectrum with brain disorders on one end and momentary blips on the other. Psychiatric conditions, also known as brain disorders, are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. The under or over production of certain chemicals in the brain lead to life-long illnesses such as chronic depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anti-personality disorders, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), amongst others.
Moving towards the center of the spectrum we find eating disorders, addictions (alcohol, drugs, gambling) and the like. Center still are non-clinical issues such as low-self esteem, emotional abuse at the hands of loved ones, and all the other issues women carry in our proverbial baggage. On top of this we must contend with the emotional element of physical problems – e.g. a HIV diagnosis, unplanned pregnancy, sexual violence, physical and emotional abuse etc.
Our brains can also malfunction on a short-term basis and lead to episodes of depression, panic-attacks, insomnia, and postpartum depression. Life brings its own drama that disrupts our mental health. High-pressure seasons such as moving to a new country, starting a new job or degree, or changing apartments can trigger lingering negative emotions. At one point or another black girls and women in China are all but guaranteed to grapple with painful feelings of culture shock, home sickness, and loneliness.
On the other side of the spectrum from brain disorders is a peaceful state of mind. One that has been trained to remain rooted in tranquility in spite of the turbulences of our daily lives. Inner peace is the ultimate goal for a healthy mind but it alludes many of us.
In our respective countries we have been socialized to believe that poor mental health is a luxury afforded to the wealthy, a phenomenon that only exists in white communities, an illusion that one can simply think their way through, or something that can be cured without medical intervention. We carry these myths with us to our new lives in China and leave them unchecked, even if our mental health is ailing.
Recent data is beginning to challenge this misconception – depression, anxiety and other mental health problems are more common in the African continent and amongst her diaspora than we may otherwise believe. With increased awareness there is hope that stigma will eventually erode away.
Back home black girls and women tend to have close-knit ties that provide nurture in difficult times. Sometimes we will hear hushed whispers of rumors that a distant relative, neighbor, coworker etc. is a little crazy. And if it’s someone we love all sorts of stories are conjured up to cover up an innocent truth that is perceived as a shameful secret.
All too often black women are the pillars of their families and communities, to the extent that we have a tendency to sacrifice our own well-being. With children, parents, siblings, religious communities, colleagues, employers, employees, neighbors and the like each relying on us for one thing or another we find ourselves at the bottom of our priority list. For generations we have been responsible for the care of those around us, straining ourselves to care for everyone else at our own expense.
Somewhere down the line the favored compliment to pay a black woman became that she is ‘strong’ – a characteristic forced upon us and so-called badge of honor for surviving despite the oppressive forces against us. Blavity guest writer Tori Smith put it best “Through the ideal of the strong Black woman, African-American women are subject not only to historically rooted racist and sexist characterizations of Black women as a group but also a matrix of unrealistic interracial expectations that construct Black women as unshakable, unassailable and naturally strong.”
We also became defined as ‘angry’ – an emotion that is almost an inevitable response to the daily assaults black women face. Anger is a natural reaction to injustices committed against oneself, especially when they disregard our basic humanity. Strong and angry are characteristics derived from our emotions. A strong woman is one that has fortified herself, one that has learnt to absorb the continuous attack to her body and soul with grace. These emotions wreck havoc on our physical wellbeing as well, another sign that our health is holistic. Physical health cannot exist without mental health any more than mental health can exist without physical health.
Black China Blues
The mental health of black women and girls in China is unique to our lived experiences here. Mental health risk factors also vary according to the age and life situation of black girls and women. Teenage years are commonly riddled with anxiety, low self-esteem, and stress. It is the time that girls are most susceptible to eating disorders and substance abuse.
Black teenage girls in China are often the children of middle to upper class parents. Their presence in China is a natural result of their parents’ employment in this country. As such they live with their families and have a robust support-system at home. The culture shock that affects so many foreigners here is less heightened for them because of the malleable character of young people. Public Chinese schools are restricted to nationals, and so black teenage girls are often enrolled at international schools. Private schools are generally well-funded and better equipped to nurture students academic and personal growth. Teachers and administration tend to be vigilant towards bullying and personality changes in students. This goes a long way in fostering mental health in black students as early symptoms of brain disorders may appear from the ages of 16 – 25. It can also create safe spaces whereby black girls can question their sexuality and gender within the expat community, albeit in the context of a heteronormative and gender binary country.
Teenagers are notorious for turning towards substance abuse for recreational uses or self-medication. Alcohol is abundant in China, and the favored local drink is a hard liquor. Plus Chinese culture often leans towards heavy drinking in social settings. Black girls and women going through mental health challenges have easy access to alcohol and cigarettes, which can only offer short-term escape and pain relief from their troubles. Drugs, including marijuana, on the other hand, are heavily monitored by the national police and result in severe jail sentences for anyone caught in the possession of said substances.
Adult black women experience their own set of challenges in China. For example, culture shock is heightened with age, as we grow set in our ways over time. A black woman who was born and raised in a multi-cultural environment will experience less culture shock in China over one who is only familiar with one culture, country, and way of life. This inevitably leads to a degree of home sickness at one point or another. Added to this is the immediate severance of physical proximity to loved ones. Even if VPN behaves long enough for an extended video call, technology has its limitations in soothing loneliness. Black girls and women belong to cultures that value community and inter-personal relationships. Therefore, living without a go-to resource readily available can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and frustration.
Isn't She Pretty?
Black girls and women outside China are regularly bombarded with media representations that enforce unrealistic beauty standards and the sexual objectification of our bodies. The cosmetic industry and mass media in China however, focus on Chinese and South-Asian women as their target demographics. Compared with the 500 million plus Chinese women here, black women are a negligible market. In countries with sizeable black or Western communities there are typical features that are considered beautiful. Black women are encouraged to straighten their hair, bleach their skin and slim their curves. Outside China we are bombarded by messages that demean our being and bodies as less than whilst also hyper-sexualizing them in music videos and popular culture. These messages are largely absent in China because black women are too few and far between to be represented in mainstream Chinese culture.
On the flipside, living in a minority community here draws constant attention from Chinese people. Anytime black girls and women leave their homes they are guaranteed to be scrutinized by Chinese passerby’s. Black girls and women are often perceived as exotic creatures and are stared at for the color of their skin, texture of their hair, cultural attire, and curves. Teenage girls already have a tendency to be self-conscious and they usually feel a certain type of way about this. The reaction of black women and girls is responsive to the time spent in China, with people developing their own survival mechanisms over time to cope with unwanted attention.
This phenomenon is common in both urban Chinese cities and rural Chinese communities. Perhaps the main differences are that in urban areas people are less likely to initiate a conversation and more likely to take pictures discretely. In rural areas where community ties are strong and personal space is a fuzzy concept Chinese people are known to reach out and touch black hair, rub black skin to see if the color changes and brazenly snap multiple photos.
So how can we take care of our mental health and cultivate inner peace? Much of this is self-taught. There is no syllabus or blueprint that can guide black women through the intricacies of cultivating and maintaining a peaceful state of mind. Here are some tips and tricks to improve mental and physical health.
All too often black women forget to take care of themselves. We are as deserving of our own love and care as those to whom we instinctively pour into. Audre Lourde, a black lesbian civil rights activist eloquently wrote “Self-care is not an act of indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Recognizing our own innate value and unashamedly catering to our needs is the only place to start.
Mental health and physical health are indivisible. We need to care for our physical selves through enough sleep, regular exercise, and proper nutrition. Alongside that foundation we need to develop our emotional intelligence and expand our vocabulary to identify the wide range of human emotions.
Spend time in nature, escape from the concrete jungles and hutongs to spend an afternoon outdoors. Intentional time spent in nature is a great way to cultivate a spiritual practice that connects us to something bigger than the physical plane. No matter your religion or spiritual practices there is something uniquely peaceful about relaxing in a park, by a lake, or on a mountain top. For maximum benefits find a way to exercise or meditate outdoors.
Being a constant outsider in China nurtures a special bond between foreigners navigating the same foreign land – and navigating the locals experience of them being there. On the upside, the black community has turned to WeChat (China’s version of WhatsApp) to create multiple social groups to vent and encourage one another. In spite of China’s transient nature, black communities remain relatively well connected. Black women and girls can tap into this digital community and lean on each other. Historically, black people tend to cope with mental health problems through informal resources like family, friends, religious establishments, neighbours and co-workers. This extends to members of the LGBTQ+ community as there are multiple digital and physical spaces to socialize. Are you looking to connect with more black people in China? Andinet Directory is China’s Directory with all things black – featuring hundreds of listings. Browse through to connect with communities of your choosing.
Most importantly, trust those closest to you and speak with them openly. Unless and until you ask for what you need, you will be stuck without. Courageously speak your truth and trust that they will lovingly comfort you. Past the perceived shame of asking fellow black sisters for help is a bond that will grow stronger and chase away loneliness.
If you or a loved one are struggling with poor mental health in China, these online and physical resources are for you and hyperlinked for easy access:
Part 1: Online Resources
Andinet Directory is a free platform listing hundreds of WeChat groups, businesses, social groups, organizations and more across black communities of African descent in China. Browse through to connect with people in your area or whom share your interests and boost your social ties. For Andinet Directory listings specific to mental health, visit Mind & Body and Health & Fitness.
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With Talkspace online therapy, anyone can get therapy without traveling to an office – and for significantly less money than traditional therapy. Start therapy now with a licensed therapist that understands how you live your life today.
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The Friend Zone Podcast is where every Wednesday as Dustin Ross, HeyFranHey & Assante explore mental health, mental wealth and mental hygiene, because who in the hell wants a musty brain?
Bp hope is a magazine for hope and harmony for people with Bipolar.
The Black Girl’s Guide to Calm shares practical tips and advice for creating more calm and peace in your crazy, chaotic life.
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Part 2: Physical Resources
Take advantage of traditional Chinese medicine and try acupuncture, cupping or ear seeds for temporary relief of symptoms such as insomnia and anxiety. Below are treatment facilities either entirely dedicated to mental health or with a substantive mental health department.
United Family Healthcare
北京第六医院 – Peking University Sixth Hospital
United Family Healthcare
United Family Healthcare
Wuhan Hospital for Psychotherapy
What is your top tip for mental wellbeing? Please leave it in the comments below so we can all learn from each other.