Confronting a taboo after the death of ‘For Brown Girls’ founder

Much of Karyn Washington’s online presence — from her organization For Brown Girls, to her beauty-driven #DarkSkinRedLip project — sought to uplift other women and make them feel beautiful.

When news broke last week that the 22-year-old had died of an apparent suicide, Washington’s friends and followers took to blogs and social networks to express how she had inspired them.

The news also led to conversations about mental health among black women and the stigmas associated with seeking treatment for depression and other mental illnesses. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, black women are less likely to seek treatment for depression, often viewing as it a personal weakness and not an illness.

A Post article last year highlighted skepticism around treatment, but noted that African Americans are increasingly seeking help for mental illnesses. Women, in particular, have to battle the stereotype of the “strong black woman.” One D.C. woman said that she had told close friends, but not family members about her decision to try therapy. “We as a culture have not overcome post-slavery,” she told reporter Tara Bahrampour. “I think that in the black community we have to be strong and we cannot be perceived as weak.”

Amid heartfelt tributes and personal essays that reflected on Washington’s legacy, some questioned how someone so dedicated to empowering other women could take her own life.

Washington’s friend Yumnah Najah addressed the speculation in a recent YouTube video.  In the video, Najah acknowledges that Washington was struggling with depression following the death of her mother last year and says she hopes to “refocus people on the beauty of her life and the beauty of her foundation.”

“The beauty about Karyn was that she was in some ways just like an average girl,” Najah says in the video. “She had things that she struggled with as a female and as a human being, but she really did not let those things stop her from wanting to reach out to other people and to help other people and it didn’t stop her from caring about other people.”

Terrie Williams, who runs the eponymous public relations firm The Terrie Williams Agency, explored depression within the black community in her 2008 book “Black Pain:  It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting.” A liscensed clinical social worker, Williams shared her own struggle with depression in a 2005 Essence article. “That story generated over 10,000 emails [from people] around the country,” Williams recalled in a phone interview. It also launched a new role for Williams: mental health activist.

“I get mail every single day from people just saying ‘thank you, thank you for naming it, thank you for helping me understand why I feel the way that I feel,’ Williams said.

That Washington’s death is generating conversations about mental health is a good thing, said Williams, who calls counseling “the gift that keeps on giving.”

“We’re not meant to hold inside pain and suffering and grief,” she said. “It has to go somewhere and when we don’t understand the value, the necessity of counseling, we sell ourselves short.”

Williams said it’s important not to judge Washington, but to focus on her message of self-love.

“We can’t guess what was in her mind. We have to…be thankful that she was here,” Williams said.  “How can you be inspired by her life? Who is going to take the baton from her? Because it’s a message that still needs to get out.”

According to Najah’s video, For Brown Girls will continue Washington’s mission.

“If you’re a good person, if you’re somebody who…wants to genuinely help other people, you are beautiful,” Najah says. “And Karyn is somebody who taught me that. She taught me…what beauty is really about. And I am always going to be grateful to her for that and I will carry that message out throughout my life.”

Bethonie Butler is a producer and a reporter on The Post’s engagement team. She oversees online comments and has also contributed to The Style Blog and She The People.
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