Mental and physical health are linked in strong and important way, and we need to focus on both in our every day lives. No one knows this more than Chicago native Dr. Inger Burnett-Zeigler. Combining the latest research with her personal experiences, Dr. Burnett-Zeigler uses her work to provide outlets for support, including mental health treatment, for all people but especially for Black women.
She has found, and much research has shown that Black women often deprive themselves of experiencing a full range of emotions, leading to negative emotions that test their mental health. In addition, Black women are also less likely to acknowledge their mental health needs or to seek mental health treatment, increasing their risks for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal thoughts. This in turn can lead to physical problems, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. It is all part of one experience and one mission for Dr. Burnett-Zeigler and those she works with. And after a year of high emotions, calls for allyship, and a drawing closer of our communities, it is something we could all learn a bit more about. Dr. Burnett-Zeigler is showing us just how much work she puts into this effort, and how we can all support it each and every day…
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Growing up I wanted to be everything from a veterinarian, to a talk show host, to a ballerina.
What advice would you give to that younger version of yourself?
That it’s okay to be different, maintain curiosity and wonder, to be open to life’s twists and turns, dream boldly, and speak up because what you have to say matters.
How did you enter the world of psychology?
When I started undergrad at Cornell University, I was pre-med. I took all of the pre-med courses (and passed them), but felt like I was going through the motions, doing what I was “supposed” to do. It was my psychology courses that I really loved. I enjoyed the readings and found myself doing extra independent study.
My first field placement the summer between junior and senior year was at New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York working as a mental health aide doing room checks. Every fifteen minutes I would check each room on the psychiatric unit to make sure none of the patients had harmed themselves. This internship gave me the opportunity to observe first hand what I had been reading about in books. I got to know people who had conditions such as Autism, Eating Disorders, Psychotic Depression and Schizophrenia. I sat with them, listened to them and learned from them. I had the opportunity to not only observe the patients on the unit, but also the way that the world-renowned psychoanalyst Dr. Otto Kernberg engaged with the patients with thoughtfulness and compassion. After this summer, I knew that I had found what I was meant to do.
And how did that profession lead to your upcoming book?
For the past ten years, I have worked as a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine, in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. As a part of that role, I provide psychotherapy to adult women, conduct research, teach and mentor graduate students. My research is focused eliminating the disparities in mental illness and treatment, particularly in the Black community.
In my work I have found that although Black people are at greater risk for a number of mental health conditions such as stress, depression, anxiety and traumatic stress, they are less likely to participate in treatment. Much of this is due to stigma around mental illness and treatment, but also the lack of accessible mental resources and providers of color. For the past six years, I have been leading a program of research focused on developing, testing, and implementing culturally tailored mental health interventions for Black women in a community health center.
In order to bring awareness to the mental health challenges faced by Black women, and some of the cultural beliefs that get in the way of treatment, I wrote the op-ed “The Strong and Stressed Black Woman” that was published in The New York Times in 2018. That article planted the seeds for what has now become the book: Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women.
Tell us what we can expect from the book.
Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen is a book about strong Black women; the unknown suffering that is intimately embedded in their strength, and also a guidebook for healing. It combines the latest research with my personal story, as well as stories of family, friends and clients. Through these stories, readers will see how strength has helped Black women to cope with incredible challenges like everyday stress, trauma and racism, but also has been a mask for incredible pain that long term contributes to mental and physical health conditions. By masking our pain we deny and avoid our true feelings, repeat unhealthy generational patterns of behavior, and prevent ourselves from getting the help and healing that we need.
This book is about the challenges that so many Black women go through, but rarely talk about. It shows that it is indeed possible to be both strong and vulnerable, and that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. It is my home that through this book, women will feel seen, heard, and feel the lightness of liberation.
Why are these topics so important, especially after the last year?
In recent years, there has been a shift whereby it seems that people are gradually becoming more open to having conversations about mental health. More celebreties are acknowledging mental health challenges (i.e., Beyonce has talked about post-partum depression and Michelle Obama has talked about depression) which creates a space for others to do so as well.
Additionally, in some ways covid19 has normalized feeling stress, depression, and anxiety because almost everyone has experienced the impact of having their lives totally upended. The recent election and civil unrest have added to the psychological burden felt by many. As conversations about mental health increase, more people are thinking about how to practice good self-care and even seeking out therapy. For the first time, many providers such as myself are able to provide tele-therapy, which for some makes therapy more accessible. On the other hand, with increased demand, wait lists are quite long.
How can being “strong” be both a good and still a tough thing for any woman?
To be “strong” can be a way to be resilient to life’s challenges and able to handle whatever is thrown at you. It is how women pick themselves up every day and do what they have to do for themselves and their family. Being strong allows women to continuously show up with their head held high. It’s how we get by.
On the other hand, sometimes people pretend to be strong when they don’t actually feel strong. In doing so, they are ignoring how they really feel: sadness, depression, anxiety. When these types of feelings are ignored for too long, they can continue to manifest and grow into bigger problems and spread into other areas of one’s life like work and relationships.
Why is it important for women to continually support and lift up each other?
Having meaningful connections and being in community with others can be an incredibly important part of mental wellness. A social support system can provide advice, an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on, or even material assistance such as help running errands or babysitting. Research has shown that people who have stronger interpersonal relationships are happier and more physically healthy. When we show up for each other, we are reminded that we are not alone, but rather loved and cared for.
And why is this even more important within the Black community?
African-American culture is known to be collectivistic. This community orientation is seen through our extended family networks composed of biological and non-biological family members, church family, people from the neighborhood, sororities, fraternities, various community organizations and the like. These networks give us the framework to support each other through pooled resources, shared information and joyous celebrations. Because of this community orientation, when one of us “makes it” we believe it is our responsibility to bring others along with us. We know how hard and unfair the world can be and want to make things just a little bit easier for those who come behind. It is how we repay our debt to the ancestors for the sacrifices that they made for us.
How do you see allyship actions changing and growing in future years?
2020 prompted people to start claiming their allyship to the Black community. While many people shouted slogans, posted statements on websites, put up signs in windows, the days ahead will show if actionable steps align with the proclamations. Much work remains to be done to dismantle institutional racism and recalibrate power structures that have been in place for decades. This work begins with intentional and critical self-reflection, people becoming more informed about the history of racism in this country and the subtle and obvious ways that it continues to manifest daily, and taking actionable steps to achieve equity. In future years it is my hope that diversity and inclusion will no longer be an afterthought, but an embedded standard and a value that is seen as beneficial for all.
What is your advice for someone looking to do more to support Black women in their own communities?
There are so many ways that allys can show their support. Support Black-women owned businesses, mentor Black girls, hire Black women, put Black women in positions of leadership, vote for Black women in government, donate money to Black women doing awesome things in your community, elevate the voices of Black women on your social media platforms.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t tell yourself “no” before someone else does. Be afraid, and do it anyway. Live a life that will matter when you’re gone.
What are your future professional plans?
To continue doing multifaceted work in service of the health and well-being of the Black community, especially Black women.