A Silence in the Black Community Around Mental Health?

Introduction – the effects of institutionalised racism, wealth inequalities and social structures

In all communities within the UK and around the world there is a silence around mental health, it’s a societal and worldwide issue. From research I have done, conversations with peers about experiences, as well as learning about it last year one in one of my university modules I concluded there’s a huge amount of stigma and a big lack of conversation around mental health within the black community.

To begin, I feel it is important to address the impact racism within society has on the mental state and well-being of individuals who are affected by this type of structural violence. Research shows that experiencing racism can affect individuals mental health negatively and cause extreme stress. So, when you begin to understand that racism is built within systems and social structures – the British education system being ethnocentric and teachers attitudes towards certain groups of students, the unjust bias of the criminal justice system i.e. stop and search being disproportionate, the difficulty getting into leadership roles within institutions, and the list could go on.

Being exposed to racism can lead to individuals being more likely to develop mental
health problems like psychosis and depression. The entrenched systematic racism ultimately ensures that groups within society are unable to consistently reach high levels in their chosen field due to ongoing prejudice,discrimination and racism.

Also, the social and economic inequalities that often affect the community need addressing. Considering that amongst 16-24 year olds, people from black backgrounds suffer nearly 2.5x as much as white counterparts in terms of unemployment rates it’s easy to imagine the negative impact on an individual’s state of mind. A lack of employment opportunities leads to unintended consequences such as looking for other means to obtain finance and societal goods. This reminds me in a way of Sociology A level and the left realism perceptions of why crime occurs. As well as the media representation and moral panics. Left realists argue marginalisation and relative poverty both result in working class individuals being prone to committing crime. Then, when you consider how powerful the media is, it’s a part of our everyday life, it’s easy to visualise how racism in the media can cause people who lack education on other ethnic groups or to be honest, are sometimes ignorant, to view certain groups in society in a certain way. A moral panic occurs. Labelling an individual or ethnic group is damaging especially when 99% + of the group doesn’t act in that way it’s a way of scapegoating that particular group.

To go into further detail about the damaging effects of social structures and the media let me give you an example of mine and 2 of my mentee’s conversation. I was on public transport with them on our way to a career visit and we were discussing racial inequalities in society. We then get into a conversation about the police and talk about stop and search. We discuss what their rights are, where they can find information on them and then they both tell me they have been stopped and searched 2-3 times already. At the age 14-15. They say “It’s normal, it’s not that
deep Marley. It happens.” As someone who looks at them as little brothers it hurt me, I can’t lie. Imaging them feeling labelled as a criminal or as someone involved in criminal activity simply because of the colour of their skin or their attire on the day. It’s so easy for a label to become a self fulfilling prophecy without intervention. Then, when you consider the media and how the news over represent young black boys as criminals or to be involved in violence, a moral panic will happen and society will view the group to be a way that truly doesn’t represent the whole population. Anyone within the community knows a large majority of young black boys are future
senior managers, CEO’s, lawyers, business analysts, headteachers, politicians, athletes etc.

Changing incorrect stereotypes and challenging what we see in the media is essential for tackling the internalised labels some young black boys will experience as it can be mentally damaging to them growing up.

Cultural differences and what this means

I feel that is important to address the cultural difference that some people will experience. By this I mean the many people who were born in the UK are second generation migrants. As a result of this their parents’ upbringing and experiences will differ from their own. For example, what African parents who were born in Kenya would view as hardship may differ from what a teenager born in South London would view as hardship. I.e. being born in Kenya you may be forced to grow up in absolute poverty whereas in London the teen may face relative poverty. I
feel “stop complaining, people have it worse” or “what do you have to be sad about?” are phrases many of us often hear growing up. As a result this may lead to some being reluctant to expressing their feelings and emotions to their parents or family members. The knock-on effect of this is a lack of people expressing how they feel emotionally and ‘bottling it up’.

Faith, community and religion are all fundamental elements of the black community. During hardship people will turn to faith, spiritual beliefs and God to help cope. I strongly feel that the stated above can be a great help when battling bad mental health/a mental health issue but it shouldn’t deter people from seeking professional support or support elsewhere. A balance of faith and religion with professional help may be the answer for some and should be considered to a greater degree.

Mental health services – diagnoses, treatment and severe mental health issues

Rather than entering the mental health services via primary care, which is the main route to treatment for most people, African Caribbean people are more likely to enter via the court system or police. Furthermore, they are more likely to be treated under a section of the mental health act and are over-represented in high and medium secure units and prisons. This is a huge issue as black people are more likely to receive medication rather than being offered treatments like psychotherapy. Treatment tends to have a poorer outcome than the average and of course as one
can imagine this leads to social exclusions and a deteriorating mental health.

Also, African-Caribbean people are three to five times more likely than any other group to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital for schizophrenia. This type of mental illness is considered severe and black people tend to suffer more from mental illnesses that are categorised as severe which is slightly frightening when you begin to picture how many people are wrongly diagnosed or given the wrong type of treatment. There is currently no action plan specifically for Black and ethnic communities. The last Labour government’s action plan on Black mental health
‘Delivering Race Equality’ (DRE) ended in 2010 and has not been renewed or replaced. The Afiva Trust and other race equality organisations such as Race on the Agenda, along with service user-led organisations including the National Survivor User Network, are considering developing an alternative call to action on race equality in mental health.

Progress within the black community

When you consider that black men are 17x more likely to be diagnosed with ‘serious’ mental health issues as Keith Dube explained in his BBC documentary ‘Being black and going crazy?’ it shocks me there isn’t even more awareness on this issue. I feel in recent years there has been so much more conversation and support around challenging the stigma within the community but as always, we can push for even more. Watching the documentary, when I was around 17, was the first time I properly started to gain a deep interest in mental health and how it affects the black
community.

For me personally, seeing figures that I look up to such as Jamal Edwards, Santan Dave and Stormzy discussing mental health and raising awareness has been great. Stormzy speaking in an interview about his experiences with stages of bad mental health and how for a period not understanding/dismissing it is something a lot of young people within the community probably resonate with. Also, discussing it on songs like ‘Don’t Cry for Me’, ‘Lay Me Bare’ and ‘One Second.’

Dave talking about his mental state in songs such as ‘Psycho’, ‘My 19th Birthday’, the
end credit section of the song ‘71’ has a huge impact for the young black people who listen to his music – it’s probably even led to a lot of people seeking support or opening up. And, all the great work Jamal Edwards has done with SBTV and short documentaries around mental health which have pushed a lot of conversations forward. There are a lot of people who have an influence using it positively to raise awareness and shed light on issues like mental health. For me, using your platform in a way that brings awareness to societal issues is what I define as an influencer.

What else can be done?

When I think of a therapist or a councillor, I often think of a white middle aged woman. This stereotype I’ve been conditioned to visualise due to movies, media etc is one I feel needs to change. The UK is constantly becoming more diverse and challenging, as well as, changing stereotypes is important.

79% of students from the BAME community have stated they would want to see a therapist from the same community as them. In a sense I agree with this, how can a white middle class, middle aged woman be expected to properly understand some of the hardship young black men have to deal with? Having someone who resonates and understands your experiences and challenges is something I feel many would benefit from. And, this isn’t me saying you should solely go to a therapist or seek help from someone the same skin colour as you but having a wider range of people available from a range of backgrounds is essential in my perspective. Even writing this blog I came across BAATN (Black, African and Asian Therapy Network) and having a quick look through their website it’s amazing. A really great enterprise that will be very effective in the long term to support black people with mental health issues and battles.

Being an optimist, I have a lot of faith in the current generation of the black community in terms of creating change in general. When I see Dave calling out the MP for being a racist at the Brit Awards, many young black boys and girls starting their own businesses sharing it on Twitter, black university students excelling regardless of the many barriers they face beforehand, black teachers in SLT roles, black directors in big firms, I remember the potential within the black community is limitless.

Due to reasons like the ones stated above and the many others I may not have touched upon I know there is due to be more dialogue around mental health in the black community, less stigma and more solutions in the near future and this is something I look forward to seeing.


Marley Ahmed is a talented guest blogger to The RealTalk Blog platform. Also the author of his own page, Let’s Talk Society, Marley digs into some of the societal trends and topics he feels more awareness and conversation should be had. We are happy to have Marley joining the RTB family, hoping you enjoy his posts as much as we do!

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