“As a licensed clinical social worker, I have worked with Black women in treatment,” Mia Kirby says, “and many discussed hesitance towards therapy due to their belief in a need to be strong.”

Mia Kirby

Mia Kirby

Every year, the Hogg Foundation gives the Frances Fowler Wallace Memorial Award for Mental Health Dissertation Research to eligible doctoral candidates at institutions of higher education in Texas. Awardees receive a $1,500 scholarship to help cover research-related expenses.

Mia Kirby, a doctoral student studying Sociology at Texas Woman’s University, received the award in 2018. We recently talked with Kirby about the aims, methods and contexts of her research:

Hogg Foundation: Your study is titled, “Cranes in the Sky: Exploring the relationship between the strong black woman archetype and mental health help-seeking behaviors of black women.” What led you to take a professional interest in this topic, and what questions are you trying to answer with this research?

Mia Kirby: I became interested in this topic after reading articles in Black women’s magazines that discussed the concept of the Strong Black Woman as a hindrance towards Black women seeking professional mental health therapy. As a licensed clinical social worker, I have worked with Black women in treatment, and many discussed hesitance towards therapy due to their belief in a need to be strong.

This research seeks to understand if a relationship exists between the idea of the Strong Black Woman and the mental health help-seeking behaviors of the Black woman. The implications of the study will provide greater insight into the Black woman’s experience, and more specifically how these experiences have shaped her identity, ideas about mental health and ideas about mental health help-seeking behaviors.

Hogg Foundation: How do you think your research methods and approach helped you answer the questions you posed?

Kirby: This research was approached from a Black feminist perspective. This perspective attempts to incorporate the Black woman’s unique experiences while recognizing the impact of class, age and sexual orientation as areas that also shape the Black woman’s experience. As a research approach, Black feminist theory encourages the incorporation of music, literature, film and other forms of artful and personal expression as a means to better understand Black women.

Much of what is understood of the Strong Black Woman concept has been disseminated through music, literature and pop culture, making the image culturally salient and a fixed representation of the Black woman within and outside of the Black community. For this reason, it was important to approach the research through musical analysis and semi-structured interviews, as it provided great insight into the concept of the Strong Black Woman as it relates to mental health.

Hogg Foundation: What, from your perspective, is the biggest area of need—or the greatest opportunity—related to this topic? In other words, how could we really move the needle on this front? 

Kirby: Prior research has found that Black women not only experience higher rates of depression, but are also less likely to seek treatment for depression symptoms than the general population. Barriers like stigma, community disapproval, disbelief in receiving treatment from the dominant healthcare system, and disapproval of psychotropic medications prevent the professional treatment of depressive disorders.

In addition to the lack of trust around seeking professional intervention, Black women face the task of living up to the Strong Black Woman Archetype (SBWA), which is capable of handling emotional hardships without seeking professional support. In the shadow of the SBWA are internalized and suppressed emotions, as well as denial of the severity of depressive symptoms and refusal to seek professional intervention to address them. Further fear of seeming personally and spiritually weak prevent Black women from seeking treatment for depressive symptoms.

The research conducted in this study substantiated the prior research while also proposing alternative methods to treatment. The women in the study recognized the importance of community in treatment and discussed group therapy and collective healing approaches as an alternative means to traditional talk therapy. In an effort to better meet the needs of Black women, alternative approaches to treatment must be researched and implemented.

Kirby recommends the following related resources: