Some of you may know that October marks the beginning of Black History Month. Black History Month is an annual commemoration of the history, achievements and contributions of black people in the U.K. This year, Black History Month is more significant than ever, mostly due to the events which took place in America earlier this year. Since the death of George Floyd in May, many shows, documentaries and books which address the struggles faced by the black community have been brought to our attention and mental health issues are one of those struggles.
Did you know that black people are four times as likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than their white counterparts? In many communities, mental health conditions are rarely spoken about and are often seen in a negative light. In recent years, the stigma has been reduced and this has encouraged many people to open up about their experiences. It’s hard to believe that there was a time when mental health just wasn’t acknowledged at all. Our mental health plays a pivotal role in everything we do: from the decisions we make on a daily basis to the people we surround ourselves with. Prioritising our wellbeing isn’t an option, it’s a necessity.
In this post, Jenna from Jenna’s Worldview and I will be sharing our thoughts on mental health as well as addressing the way mental health has been downplayed in our respective communities.
Through the years, my relationship with mental health has evolved. I grew up in the 90’s/00’s, a time when mental health wasn’t even an afterthought, yet alone something many people now feel comfortable talking about so openly. Some of you may/may not know that I am West African (from Cameroon to be exact). Growing up in an African home presents its own share of challenges. What I believe has had a questionable impact on many black children and adults (especially those who are in their late 20’s/early 30’s) is the inferiority/superiority complex that has been adopted by most African parents. From my own experience, if you were fed and provided with clothes and shelter then you had absolutely nothing to complain or be sad about, which is fair but having basic needs met doesn’t automatically make you exempt from the various obstacles and hardships that life brings along the way.
I grew up in a home where I wasn’t encouraged to share my emotions or talk about my feelings.
If I was frustrated, I’d be ignored and if I was tired, I’d be called moody, there was a lack of understanding of feelings and emotions. The dismissal of emotions was a recurring theme, particularly when I observed how most of the women who were closest to me communicated with each other. When I look back and reflect, I am reminded of the fact that your parents and family members raise you according to their own level of awareness. This doesn’t mean that my mother did a bad job raising me (she did a great job), but it did mean that simple forms of expression and the ability to tap into my identity were a big struggle for me especially in my late teens/early-mid 20s. I felt like I’d been depersonalised in a way.
A lot of the emotions I experienced at the time were normal for anyone of my age, for example: the love/hate relationship I had with my body, experiencing my first heartbreak, not being sure what I wanted to do with my life etc. As a young woman who was finding her way, I hadn’t been prepared for the realisms and complexities of life. Anything unfortunate that happened to me during that time hit me like a ton of bricks, and from that moment on the state of my mental health was compromised.
The narrative of waiting until you have a breakdown before you realise you have a problem is harmful and extremely outdated. It does a disservice to so many black men and women. Did you know that nearly 5,000 Black/Black British people per 100,000 accessed mental health services in 2014/15? I can’t imagine what the figures are like in this present day. They’ve probably tripled on account of everything that’s happened this year (COVID-19, BLM etc). In my lifetime, I’ve seen about four counsellors and it wasn’t until my third time in therapy (2018), that I began to experience an awakening almost. I saw how I was able to push all of the harmful and questionable things that had happened to me to one side, because I thought I was being a strong and resilient black woman. Prior to my third experience in therapy, I couldn’t differentiate between what was fair and just and what was simply out of my control. To this present day, I am still learning.
It’s heartbreaking to see or hear stories about people who suffer from severe mental health issues, especially later in life. I can’t help but wonder how things would have turned out for them if they weren’t ashamed or scared to admit they had a mental health problem. Who knows? Now, I can confidently say that I am in a great place mentally. I’ve learned how to check in with my mind, body and soul as and when I need to. It hasn’t always been easy, but I do it anyway. I think my experiences with anxiety and low mood have also taught me how to stay present, which is something we have all had a firm reminder how to do due to the events of this year.
Although the stigma surrounding mental health has reduced, I believe there is still a lot of work to do. Check in with yourself regularly and be honest with yourself too. Sometimes, happy/sad just isn’t a reflection of how you feel and that’s OK. Also, try to speak to one friend every week. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a text or a call, just touch base and find out how they’re doing. Finally, if you are struggling with your mental health, don’t beat yourself up and don’t be afraid to get the help you need. You’re not the first person to go through a rough patch or a rut, and you won’t be the last.
As a young African woman who will raise the next generation one day, I think that we have to do our bit to ensure that our future children can express themselves with ease. Also, I do think that adults and even children with negative perceptions of mental health should be challenged. Everyone’s experiences are different, so stereotyping really isn’t the way forward. We need to do better. We must do better.
I can confidently say the conversation surrounding mental health within the black community has improved. We aren’t where we need to be but we have come a very long way. My hope is that future generations will continue to prioritise their mental health.
In my opinion, the black community has dealt with mental health in a shocking manner.
What fascinates me is how things are dealt with across genders. Black women are constantly encouraged to “stay/be strong” while black men are told to ‘’suck it up”. These messages are heavily enforced within the family structure and as a result, this type of thinking passes from one generation to the next. It’s no surprise that mental health continues to be stigmatized.
As a people, we are told to carry our pain. Figures of speech such as ‘pray the depression/trauma away’ and ‘keep your troubles to yourself’ dominate conversations in most communities. In the minds of many, if you hit a low point in your life, it’s your own doing. There’s no differentiation between what has happened because of you and what has happened to you. I don’t necessarily agree with the way the older generation has approached mental health. I appreciate that they were navigating through life under difficult and different circumstances. In this day and age, mental health services are accessible, but many young people are reluctant when it comes to seeking professional help.
The reluctance to use mental health services, the fear of trust along with the lack of representation and understanding of what a mental health issue means is still a big issue in the black community. Once you add the negative stigma that is already attached to mental health, it’s a surefire recipe for disaster. We’ll have children, who eventually become adults, suppressing their emotions and resenting their identities. As someone who has seen the impact of a lack of mental health support in family and community settings, I know that only a handful of people make it out on the other side. Most of the time, it is down to luck, but the reality is that many young black women and men will become victims of what is already an incredibly complex system.
My mental health is precious and I’ve made a conscious effort to look after it. Through personal experience, I knew about mental health from a young age. In fact, it was one of the reasons why I chose to study Psychology at university and everything changed from there.
The course helped me develop a real sense of awareness and understanding in relation to mental health. All of the things I had been led to believe weren’t living rent free in my mind anymore. I saw my mental health in a completely different way. It hasn’t always been easy, having counselling following a traumatic breakup was really hard for me.
The “strong black woman” label was embedded in my psyche from a very young age. I felt guilty for using counselling to work through my thoughts and feelings. Unlearning the things you’ve been told from childhood in adulthood is an interesting journey. A lot of people didn’t understand the desire I had for inner change, however, I managed to push through and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
If I allowed the opinions of naysayers to bother me, things might have been a bit different for me right now. As far as I’m concerned, my mental health is a top priority and I’m willing to do everything necessary to keep it intact. I don’t care for backdated cultural ideologies or unsolicited and unhelpful advice. I refuse to sweep things under the carpet because that isn’t the way to deal with life’s twists and turns. Mental wellness is a part of my life. I can only hope that this current generation will be committed to looking after their mind as well as promoting and practising mental wellness in every way, shape or form.
Black people have had to overcome a great deal of oppression and trauma. The odds are often stacked against us, but we always find a way to make it through. As admirable as it is to embody such strength and persistence, it often comes at the price of our mental health being compromised.
To any young black women or men reading this post, I want to let you know that you can break all the toxic cycles. Do everything in your power to look after yourself and your mental health. Forget about the rulebook or any traditions that are holding you back, and never be afraid to put yourselves first.
Thanks for reading this post – although the contributions from Jenna and I highlight mental health stigma in African and Caribbean communities, it would be great to hear from all KS readers – how do you look after your mental health, especially in these unprecedented times? Also, if your relationship with mental health in general has improved over the years, it would be great to hear from you too if you feel comfortable sharing your story.
Most importantly, if you are struggling with your mental health, please speak to someone. The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network is a great place to find a therapist. There are also mental health resources available on the site, and they are also holding a series of virtual events over the next few weeks.