My scholarship essays go something like this: my name is Layla, and here are all the reasons why I deserve to be here.
All my life, I have been surrounded by strong women. My mother, single and raising two kids in community housing, has always worked to make sure there was food on the table and money for rent. The aunties who lived next door all seemed to be variations on the theme of hard-working women. They all churned out the same advice when they would see me on my way to school or work: don’t squander what was given to you, aim for the stars, be a strong Black woman, and succeed in life.
I took the advice of the women in my life and decided to go to U of T. I was the only Black student in my high school to choose UTSG, riding in on a full-year scholarship. I was rewarded academically for upholding this vision of independence at a young age, and I found that I liked the feeling of accomplishment it gave me.
However, later on, one of the most paradoxical things I’d find out about university is that we as students are encouraged to try new things and make mistakes, and yet the majority of us simply cannot afford to fail, whether from a financial or academic standpoint.
For Black women, this is doubly so, because to fail is to show how you were not worthy of the position in the first place. This is one of the many reasons why we as Black women tend to push ourselves until we achieve excellence — because we can afford nothing less. Yet, this undoubtedly takes a toll on our mental and physical health. It’s about time we change this narrative.
Mental health as a Black woman
In my first year, I was thrust into an environment where one person in every 100 might look like me. When I decided to major in molecular genetics, that ratio dropped to zero. The further I progressed at U of T, the more I began to notice the difference in the treatment I received compared to others. I began to notice how I was excluded from study groups or how uncomfortable or annoyed some professors and teaching assistants looked when I asked a question.
I noted all of these things and still kept my head held high. This was a token of pride, I told myself. Let them see how strong I can be.
This idea of being a strong Black woman is an attractive one. It’s what gets me through those classes where no one looks remotely like me. I’m stronger than they’ll ever be because of what I went through — what I’m still going through. However, no one told me that pain is still pain, and it has a way of catching up to you.
I started having panic attacks in my second year. It was a tough semester for everyone studying life sciences. After all, it’s well known that many of the hardest life science courses are shunted into the fall semester of second year. It wasn’t uncommon to hear stories about people failing or dropping courses. I wasn’t one of those people, of course. I couldn’t afford to be.
Not only did I have a full course load, but I was also participating in several clubs and working part time to supplement my family’s income. On paper, my books were balanced; all the little fires easily put out by losing some sleep here, working overtime there. And yet, I spent at least an hour every weekday hiding in bathroom stalls or behind buildings, trying to force air into my lungs and believe that everything was going to be alright.
I never went to get help. I encouraged other people, sure, like coworkers and friends. But they were other people. I had built a façade for myself, one where I was the strong student who never broke down, who took things in stride and never came out the worse for it. A strong Black woman. To be frank, I was just terrified. What would happen if people were to find out? Would I be seen as weak? Unable to work, to pursue research? The cards were already stacked against me, why should I add one of my own design?
Breaking down the Black “superwoman” ideal
Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombé, a researcher whose work focuses on understanding and reducing stress-related health disparities among African Americans, coined the term “Superwoman Schema” as a way to understand health issues that disproportionately affect African-American women. Her work revealed how African-American women strive to embody the idea of being a ‘superwoman’ — the type of woman who could have it all and needed no one to help her achieve it.
While this show of strength is seen at once as armour, it also alienates Black women from their own emotions, causing a strange sort of disconnect. The resulting cumulative chronic stress may be one of the reasons why Black women seem to suffer more health issues than the general population. Their emotions come back to haunt them; pain takes root.
Black women are expected to be unbreakable — both by the world and by ourselves. But our armour doesn’t get better with each hit we take; it cracks, threatening to crush the very real flesh that resides within. As such, it is vital for us as Black women to recognize the importance of taking care of our mental health and not trying to shoulder everything on our own.
Accessing mental health resources
But if finding a familiar face in classes is already challenging, how difficult must it be to find one in a health care setting? Finding culturally sensitive therapy options is a challenge in and of itself, as the majority of therapists lack the ability to empathize with the experiences of Black women.
At the very least, we should be able to look outside what the university has to offer in regard to therapy options and instead toward our own community. An increase in insurance coverage for therapy, as well as curated lists of culturally sensitive therapists, would go miles in helping Black women seeking therapy to finally face their issues in a safe and understanding environment. But until these barriers are removed, we as Black women will have to hold up the world a while longer at the cost of our own mental and physical health.
This leads me back to my scholarship essays, which still go something like this: my name is Layla, and here is why I deserve to be here. Here is what I do to keep myself here: I do well in my classes. I work anywhere from 20 to 30 hours a week because, sometimes, there’s not enough food at home and other times, I need to make rent. I’m in clubs and run events because I’m an upstanding member of a student body. I am a strong Black woman, and I have both the accomplishments and passion to justify my place at the university — no matter what it may cost my health.
Layla Ahmed is a graduate student at the Institute of Medical Science.