NYSBA International Section Black History Month Spotlight: Dr. Inger Burnett-Ziegler
This year in recognition of Black History Month in the U.S. we are taking time to spotlight Dr. Inger Burnett-Ziegler, a licensed clinical psychologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. Dr. Burnett-Zeigler is based in Chicago, Illinois and her work has been featured in many national media outlets and publications including CNN, Good Morning America, TIME Magazine and Chicago Tribune. Dr. Burnett-Zeigler authored an opinion piece in the New York Times titled, The Strong and Stressed Black Woman, and is the author of the recent book, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women. Today she will answer a few questions about her experience and her work. To learn more about or to contact Dr. Burnett-Zeigler please see: https://ingerbz.com/about.
Q: Dr. Burnett-Zeigler, February is Black Heritage Month in the United States. Many feel a positive self identity when they feel their individual and collective cultural contributions are celebrated. Is it important that we continue to recognize this and other cultural heritage months and why?
A: There is a long history whereby the contributions of Black people to society have been discounted. This reflects one of the many ways in which the legacy of racism, discrimination and oppression has marginalized Black people. In my personal and professional experience, Black people often report feeling that they aren’t seen, heard, or are frequently misunderstood. Substantial research demonstrates that when Black adults are in a majority white workspace where they are “the only” or one of few there is a potential for them to feel isolated, invisible, and if they don’t belong. This can ultimately lead to lower work satisfaction and a decreased sense of well-being. By taking proactive steps to honor the cultural heritage of Black people, we make a statement that we value their presence and inclusion which contributes to a positive sense of self and overall mental well-being.
Q: Describe the motivation behind your article in the New York Times and recent book publication, particularly as you see the Black woman as a cultural icon. Why was this written to Black women in particular and what do you hope to achieve from speaking to this audience? What should broader audiences also take away from this work?
A: My recent book Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women was born out of my 2018 New York Times op-ed the Strong and Stressed Black Woman. Time after time I noticed Black women come into my psychotherapy practice who were beautiful, successful, active in their communities, taking care of their families, who were also silently struggling with stress, anxiety, depression and trauma. These women were ashamed that they had these feelings because they were discordant to the expectation of all enduring “strength.” They felt like they were the only ones. They felt like nobody would understand what they were going through. The women in my therapy practice, are no different than women that I know in my personal life (like my grandmother), who similarly feel the pressure and expectation to maintain an image of strength despite their internal suffering. I wrote Nobody Knows to honor the strength of Black women that allows them to be able to get the job done, and simply make it through day by day, while also telling the less often spoken stories of suffering. My hope was that by telling these stories women would feel less alone and by being in community the load of the burden of suffering would feel a little lighter. While I speak directly to Black women in the book, the stories, data about the mental health of Black women, and coping strategies can also be informative for anyone who knows and loves a Black woman and is looking to support them.
Q: I understand you conduct mental health and wellness discussions at companies across industries, but what have you found most interesting when speaking on topics of mental health to law firms? Additionally, what mental health best practices would you offer to lawyers that would apply across any culture or nationality?
A: I welcome the opportunity to talk about mental health and wellness to various audiences including corporate, non-profit, government, and of course, law. When speaking to law firms I have conducted a “Mental Health 101” lecture whereby I discuss the signs and symptoms of stress and common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety as well as coping strategies. I have also conducted a “Mindfulness for Stress Reduction” lecture where I discuss how cultivating a sense of awareness around emotions, cognitions, and behaviors can enable individuals to put in place healthy behaviors to more effectively manage their stress. When speaking with law firms, or any audience with high functioning employees, I notice that people often don’t recognize they ways in which stress is showing up in their lives and the detrimental impact that stress can have on not only mental well-being but also physical well-being. In a culture that promotes high productivity, there is an inclination to simply push through, and ignore the signs, rather than dealing with the stress head on. In this way, people do not readily appreciate the detrimental impact that allowing stress to manifest and magnify can have on their lives. Key coping strategies that I offer include 1) pay attention to thoughts, feelings and behaviors, the sources of stress in your life, and the impact that stress is having on the mind and body; 2) establish boundaries by being mindful of what you say “yes” to in both your professional and personal environments creating more space to prioritize personal wellness needs 3) Utilize your supports – people often have more emotional and material supports available to them than they are willing to take advantage of, accept the hand that is reaching out to you 4) Find opportunities for joy – small moments of joy that can be found in any typical day such as a good meal, a walk on a nice warm day, a comforting conversation with a loved one, and 5) Rest – remembering that you are more than what you “do” and sometimes it is ok just slow down, rest, and just “be” in your humanity as a whole and valuable human being.
Please look out for more Cultural Heritage Month messaging and events from the NYSBA International Section Diversity Chairs and feel free to reach out for contributions.
Diane O’Connell and DL Morriss