Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and the Justice in Prioritizing Black Women’s Mental Health

Reproductive justice can only be achieved when Black women can safeguard our mental health.

Photo of Simone Biles wearing a mask
Simone Biles withdrew from a few Olympic events, citing her mental health. But she announced she will compete in the balance beam finals, which takes place Tuesday. Fred Lee/Getty Images

Olympians Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka sparked a national conversation about mental health and self-care after they spoke out and took action to protect their mental health. But missing from many of the stories about Biles and Osaka is an analysis of the impact of racism and sexism on mental health. That’s an especially important conversation to have as we continue to reel from the stresses of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the mental health of many, but Black and Hispanic people, young adults, essential workers, caregivers, and those with preexisting psychiatric conditions are suffering the mental health impacts at disproportionately high rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is particularly true among Black women. At the beginning of the pandemic, in April and May 2020, 27.7 percent of Black adults reported symptoms of depression, up from 19.3 percent in 2019. Black individuals also report higher rates of increased substance use and having seriously considered suicide in the past month, compared to white and Asian individuals.

Reproductive justice can only be achieved when Black women, femmes, girls, and gender-expansive individuals get the help we need for emotional distress, including distress caused by anxiety, depression, or trauma. Black women and people need mental health services, now more than ever, given the racial reckoning in the country—largely led by Black women—as well as a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities.

While Black people in the United States experience traditional mental health challenges (like depression or anxiety) at the same rate as other racial/ethnic groups, we also experience profound mental and emotional distress that is uniquely and directly linked to racial oppression.

For Black women, this distress is doubly felt—experienced at the intersection of racial and gender oppression. The stereotype of the “strong Black woman” was born of Black women’s sheer need to persevere and be resilient in the face of staggering misogyny, racism, and the widespread economic and health disparities that result.

However, this label carries an undue burden for those it’s placed upon—often at significant cost to our mental and emotional well-being. A recent survey of Black women asked what would make it a better time to be a Black woman in the United States, who is free to raise healthy children if she chooses. The survey found 89 percent of respondents said decreasing the risk of drug and alcohol abuse in Black communities was either “extremely important” or “very important,” and 87 percent said improving access to affordable mental health care was either extremely or very important.

In its current state, the mental health workforce remains profoundly inadequate to meet these specific needs of Black and brown communities. Mental health professionals of color are shown to provide more appropriate and effective care to Black help-seekers, yet fewer than 4 percent of psychologists are Black.

In addition, the mental health field has failed to broadly implement clinical training that would improve awareness and understanding of the unique mental health needs of Black women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals. These and other factors such as stigma, prior negative experiences with health-care providers, lack of access to services, and inadequate health coverage compound into significant barriers to culturally competent and responsive mental health services. As a result, only about 30 percent of Black people in the United States who need mental health care receive it, compared to almost half of white people.

The recently released Black Reproductive Justice Policy Agenda lays out a blueprint of proactive policies to address Black mental health disparities. It calls on lawmakers to expand medical professionals’ diversity and their access to diversity and cultural competency training. Our legislators must also adopt new policies to expand access to mental health services and medications via telemedicine and provide rehabilitative funding and support for drug-dependent pregnant people. Congress should support programs that help individuals who are experiencing substance use disorder to create addiction recovery plans centered on meeting their individual and family goals. To begin to address these unmet urgent needs, we must pass the Tele-Mental Health Improvement Act, the Resilience Investment, Support, and Expansion (RISE) from Trauma Act, the Mental Health Services for Students Act, and the LGBTQ Essential Data Act.

Two brave women Olympians of color have sparked national awareness of mental health challenges. Now it’s time for policymakers to listen and take action to fix our broken mental health system. The nation and the world will benefit if they do.