Shining a Light on Black Mental Health
Mental health is not something which is discussed openly in the black, asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) community and as a mixed-race female growing up, I felt as though I couldn’t open up about my mental health with my black family members.
I think there’s a huge stigma attached to mental health in general but this is much more of a taboo subject in the black community. As a child, you’re bought up to be ‘strong’ and ‘brave’, to deal with what you are dealt, so you feel as though you cannot open up to your family because you don’t want to let them down.
I also think there’s a problem with how black parents and family members view mental health generally. The definition of ‘mental health’ is somewhat socially constructed and defined by Western standards, whereas in African Caribbean cultures (from my experience) mental health conditions don’t really ‘exist’; if you’re depressed then you’re probably just sad, and if you have anxiety you’re probably not trying hard enough to make friends. If you suffer from a severe mental health condition such as schizophrenia, God is punishing you because you have done something wrong. Whatever the belief, somehow you feel as though it is your fault and you start to blame yourself; you don’t want to seek help, and of course, this makes the situation much worse.
Statistics have shown that black males are more likely to be diagnosed with severe mental health conditions like schizophrenia, and the suicide rate for black males in the US is 4 times higher than black females. I believe that this (amongst many other factors) is due to the immense pressure put onto black men to be strong, protective and powerful. In black culture, hyper masculine attitudes and personality traits are expected and praised, which is problematic for men suffering from emotion related mental health conditions. Don’t get me wrong, I think some of these are good values and hopes to have for your child but these values are pushed a lot in the black community, so I think men are afraid to speak out about their mental health for fear of seeming weak and not meeting cultural and societal expectations.
I also think that this is one of the many reasons why black males are overrepresented in medium and high security prisons. Not because our men are naturally violent and aggressive, but because they are not given access to the help and support they need in the first place. This leads to a huge amount of frustration, and of course frustration can lead to an unexpected reaction. Imagine, a black man who is suffering from severe anxiety, and is expected to be a social butterfly - extremely confident, a hit with the ladies with great career prospects. When put into these kinds of social situations, he most likely feels extremely uncomfortable and nervous, but he continues anyway, pretending that he is the ‘star boy’ everyone expects him to be. Unsurprisingly, he feels trapped in a place where he is alone and afraid, he wants to ask for help but he feels like he can’t. He does this every day of his life, and this feeling gets stronger and stronger each day, until one day, he cracks. Maybe he will attempt to take his own life, or maybe he will lash out at his friends or family, maybe even strangers. Either way he winds up dead or in jail for no reason other than alack of support.
Of course, it is a lot more complex than this, and everyone has different thoughts and motivations, and there are many contributing factors (e.g. racism and injustice)- but this isn’t about that. I do believe that black men are afraid to speak out about their mental health and this isn’t fair, and needs to change. Society needs to be more understanding, and more support needs to be offered to minority groups.
Research has also shown that BAME individuals are more likely to experience a negative outcome from therapy and to disengage with it. I think this is a lot to do with the fact that therapists often have very different experiences and it can be difficult to relate to them. This is an uncomfortable situation to be in and you can’t build that necessary connection with them to have successful therapy sessions. I’m not sure if it is their expectations or just their ignorance, but on multiple occasions I’ve been told by therapists ‘talk to your friends, talk to your family’ which I couldn’t do, because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents, and I didn’t want to fall short of my friend’s expectations that I was a loud, confident, ‘sassy black woman.’
So what is the outcome of all of this you wonder? Well, I’m not sure, but I do think there is a starting point, and it’s not a difficult one to achieve.
Firstly, we need more support groups and group therapy sessions which are specifically for BAME individuals. There is one group in my local area which supports BAME women who have suffered domestic violence. This is a great start, but it’s not enough. We need to be able to identify with people from similar cultural backgrounds, and feel that our therapy sessions are catered to us – that our therapists understand us, and others in the group are going through similar experiences.
We also need mental health support to be more available & visible. We need charities and platforms going into schools and colleges in areas with a large BAME population and talking about mental health. We need someone to tell the younger generation that it’s ok not to be ok, and that they deserve to have their voice heard. Once mental health is talked about more openly within the BAME community, we will see less of our people shutting themselves away, hurting themselves, taking their own lives. There is support out there, and the key to getting young BAME people the help they deserve is to start by raising awareness and speaking up.
Kirsty Georgia is a 20 year old University student living in Brighton, England. She blogs about a variety of different topics but is focused on mental health and women's health.