Black, female, poor, mentally ill — and incredibly strong



Introducing Marissa

My friend Marissa is one of my heroes. She constantly demonstrates her strength of character, courage and intelligence, in the face of a very severe mental illness. She is an interesting person whose life experiences have matured and deepened her character. Mental illnesses often steal people’s lives, but Marissa fights back every day.

Having a severe mental illness means taking heavy medications with side effects. Among other things, her medications give her seizures so she doesn’t sleep well – and if she doesn’t sleep well, she is very vulnerable to a relapse.

Despite all her challenges, Marissa is an excellent mother who is raising her child in a very conscious and reflexive manner. She also is going to college, one or two courses at a time, and hopes it will be a good role model for her child.


Intersectionality: Race, gender, social class, and mental illness

In addition to having a severe mental illness, Marissa is a black woman, a single mother, and lives on government assistance. All these elements of social location interact with each other.

Lets look at some school-related issues as an example.

Her medications make it impossible for her to get out of bed in enough time to get her 6 year old daughter to school on time, which has caused many problems. And let me note that Marissa is sending her child to a school that — despite the diverse student population– only has white teachers.

In December, the teacher had the children write a letter to Santa  with their gift requests. Marissa was angry. This activity was a real set-up for a parent on social assistance. How could she live up to the expectations this teacher was setting up regarding Christmas gifts? But if she had gone to the school to complain, she would be an “angry black woman”. And remember, she’s already in trouble because her daughter is always late for school (although her daughter is at the top of her class).

Marissa, as a black single mother with a mental illness, is also very vulnerable to having her child taken away from her. It is no secret that child welfare systems are systemically racist and that black families are over-represented in these systems.


What happens if she has a relapse?

She recently had her first relapse in five years – a severe and paralyzing depression. Because it was over Christmas, she was unable to get hold of her doctor when she felt it coming on. By the time everyone got back to work, she was too depressed to reach out for any more help. Luckily her mother visited her, sensing she wasn’t doing well, and admitted her into the hospital. Although she is out of the hospital, she has lost custody of her daughter. We hope that as she stabilizes, she will be able to get her daughter back. The little girl misses her mommy and cries for her, even though grandma is very good to her.

Something is really wrong with this picture.


The need for community support

Marissa is not  a victim. She is an independent woman and proud of it. She has worked very hard to get to this place. But if she just had some better community support – not even an intensive support – a hospitalization could have probably been averted. If someone could help her solve everyday problems, like how to get her daughter to school on time, her stress would be greatly reduced. A month-long hospitalization is very expensive. An ongoing community support worker who would meet with her once every week or every other week is not expensive.

Does the system expect Marissa to do it on her own? Do they not care that a child’s welfare is also part of the picture – if mom stays well, the child stays well. It’s just easier to yank the child away from the single black mother when she is sick, than to make a small amount of effort to keep things on an even keel.

I’ve got practice experience and research knowledge about mental health.

But nothing makes a social problem come alive as listening to the experiences of people who go through it.


Additional reading:

Mothers with Mental Illness by the Canadian Mental Health Association

Parenting, special issue of Visions (BC’s mental health and addictions journal)

Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah (book)

Depression and Black Women from The Best of Dr. Marvin (blog)


© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2009



4 responses »

  1. This story moves me on many levels. As a mother how deals with an illness having my child taken away from me is one of my worst fears. I know that my blackness will come to bare on any decisions regarding the welfare of my child. Motherhood is an extremely complex role and when we add other intersections like race or ability to the mix it becomes even more problematized. I continually speak about the lip service we give to this role rather than the actual support that it requires. We have placed individualism over the welfare of the child and mother yet we routinely speak about honoring both.
    I feel a kinship with your friend and it is my hope that she will be able to find the help that she needs. Our struggles need not be as hard as they are if we could all just start giving a damn about the person that lives next to us.

  2. Renee, thank you for the very poignant comment. Several of the points you made touched me or sparked my thinking.

    It pains me, it infuriates me, It makes me crazy to hear you say that you know your blackness will always have a bearing on decisions about your children. I know that this happens – in fact, I wrote about it in my post. But the more I hear individual women talk about their own truths, the more personal it becomes. I believe that social justice work requires not only a passion for justice as a principle, but a personal and profound caring for the well-being of each person who crosses my path. Thank you for sharing, because in doing so, you fan the flame in my own heart.

    Your comment about paying lip service to mothering also caught my attention. This is a topic I want to reflect on more deeply and perhaps write about in the future. Thanks for seeding that idea.
    Finally, your last words about “giving a damn” about the person next to us also grabbed me. As an intersectional feminist, I tend to think about social power relations, about institutionalized oppressions, about changing social structures. But the personal is political and the political is personal. I think I’m going to write something on this.

    As always, you have stimulated and enriched my thinking. Thank you.

  3. I notice that you use the phrase the personal is political and I wanted to point out that this is also systemic. If we think about the fact that the ruling elite does not want us to care about whether the woman across the street from us has enough to eat because we have privileged the individual rather than the communal. If we continue to think individually rather than communally we can never make the changes that are necessary to form a society in which all beings are truly valued. It will take the actions of many and not one.

  4. I’m going through a similar situation except I wasn’t in the midst of a relapse the doctors found out about my mental illness and took my baby girl away a few days after her birth. This is the most terrible ordeal I’ve ever been through.

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