NU professor Dr. Inger Burnett-Zeigler publishes book on the emotional lives of Black women

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Brian Cassella (Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Prof. Inger Burnett-Zeigler recently released her debut book, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women.”

Rebecca Aizin, Summer Managing Editor

After 20 years of working with patients with depression, anxiety and trauma, Feinberg Prof. Inger Burnett-Zeigler has taken her practice to the literary world with the debut of her first book, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women.” The psychiatry professor explores the types of trauma Black women endure through a combination of stories from her own, her family’s and her clients’ lives. The Daily sat down with Burnett-Zeigler to talk about the writing process, her research and what she hopes readers will take away from the book.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.  

The Daily: What inspired you to write the book?

Burnett-Zeigler: In 2018, I wrote an article for The New York Times called “The Strong and Stressed Black Woman.” In that article, I talked about my grandmother and clients I was working with in therapy and other people that I know who embody this strong Black woman image — people who are taking care of their families, who are highly successful, who are able to accomplish a lot of things and have it all put together to the outside world but are simultaneously coping with a lot of stress and trauma internally. After that article, a lot of women came to me and told me how much they related to that experience of having so much suffering that they were dealing with on the inside that they felt they couldn’t share with other people. That article was the foundation for the book, where I also talk about my grandmother as a strong Black woman, someone I always looked up to in childhood, someone who accomplished a lot in her career, but (also) someone who also dealt with multiple miscarriages, who had been in an abusive relationship, who dealt with racism and poverty. There were other similar stories from people I know.

The Daily: How did you use your own research and knowledge of the psychology field in the book?

Burnett-Zeigler: My area of research is in disparity in mental illness treatment, so I’m really interested in understanding what factors contribute to people being more likely to have a mental health condition. The data shows that people who are more stressed and have less access to resources like education and mental health insurance are more likely to have a mental health condition and are also less likely to access mental health services. There are systemic factors that make accessing resources difficult as well as cultural factors. Particularly, in African-American communities, mental health treatment is more stigmatized and not as accepted as it may be in other communities. That work is integrated throughout the book to help people understand what signs and symptoms look like, what barriers to accessing treatment can be and how to overcome those barriers. 

The Daily: Who are you hoping picks up this book and what do you hope they get out of it?

Burnett-Zeigler: This book is written through my lens as a Black woman, as a clinical psychologist where I work primarily with people in the African-American community and as a researcher. I’m speaking primarily to Black women. However, I think there are a lot of broad applications for women and people generally who have not been given the tools to cope with stress and trauma. 

The Daily: What were some of the challenges you faced throughout the process?

Burnett-Zeigler: One of the greatest challenges was allowing myself to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is something that I encourage in the clients I work with, but I also recognize that being vulnerable is counter to how a lot of strong Black women are raised to be. In this book, I really wanted to challenge myself to be open to talk about difficult experiences I’ve faced and to be able to practice what I preach with the clients I work with. 

The Daily: What is your overarching message with the book?

Burnett-Zeigler: I want Black women and women in general to recognize the urgency of taking care of ourselves, to have permission to prioritize their mental health, to start paying attention to their own needs and let go of the general mandate of always sacrificing our individual needs for the needs of others. I want people to know they’re not alone. Through this book, I want people to see themselves and know there is community in terms of getting the support you need, and there are resources available to help with those mental health challenges. 

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @rebecca_aizin

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