Mental Illness is for White People

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With World Mental Health Day falling within Black History Month (10th October), I couldn’t ignore the opportunity to start this conversation. In the UK, people from black and minority ethnic groups (BME) are more likely to experience poor mental health and more likely to experience a negative outcome from treatment. In addition to this, black people in particular are more likely to enter mental health services through the courts or police rather than through the healthcare system, and we are almost four times more likely to be detained in a psychiatric care than our white counterparts. Four times!

And no, this isn’t one of those situations where minorities are actually more susceptible to the condition like with diabetes, for example. Rates of mental ill health in African and Caribbean countries are no higher than the general rates in the UK. The conditions aren’t the problem, our attitudes are.

1. The professionals. Just last week Jeremy Hunt agreed that the Mental Health Act has failed minorities and needs to be reformed. And yet at the same time, the police officers responsible for the death of Olaseni Lewis – a 23 year old mental health patient who died after being restrained with ‘excessive force’ – walk free. It is abundantly clear that this policy which was meant to protect is having the adverse effect in some cases, especially when it comes to minorities. But even in primary care, we are being failed. At a talk I attended recently, a senior NHS employee shared that doctors actively prescribe BME patients medication at an earlier stage than they would for caucasian patients, because we are seen as more ‘difficult’ so it’s better to throw some medication our way to shut us up than the longer term method of suggesting lifestyle changes, reviewing progress and even suggesting talking therapies before signing the dreaded green slips. While part of me was in disbelief that there could be such stereotyping driving something as serious as long term mediation prescriptions – and at an organisational level – the rest of me felt no need to question this statement. In my own experience, I saw a doctor for a grand total of about 7 minutes before being offered anti depressants. You could put this down to a one off…if it hadn’t been the case with 2 different doctors in 2 different cities 🤔 Needless to say, there is a lot of work to be done to create an environment where black and minority ethnic groups feel that they can seek help for mental ill health without being instantly medicated, arrested or killed.

2. The media. Name a film about mental health. Now name a film about mental health with a black protagonist. Or even a supporting character. Got one? If you have, I’ll bet you it’s an almost caricature like ‘mad black woman’ or ‘creepy witchdoctor’. The fact is, the media reserves common mental health problems for white people. The heart wrenching stories of struggling through depression, eating disorders or severe anxiety are told through white privilege. The minorities can have psychosis. This perpetuates a dangerous assumption that common mental illness is for white people. Strong black women can’t have depression, right? And all black men are angry and violent, that’s nothing to do with mental ill health, right?

I’m a firm believer that the reason people were so outraged with 13 Reasons Why and To The Bone is because we don’t ‘do’ mental illness in media, not unless it’s in an almost comical way. It’s too difficult a conversation to have, so let’s just not have it at all. But movies about murder, violence, rape etc. – that stuff we’re all used to so keep it coming! Mental ill health is too serious, too real, too close to home…and people aren’t ready to have to talk to their kids, friends and colleagues about it. That’s exactly why we need more. We need more shows like 13 Reasons Why, so that more people start these conversations with their family, their friends and with themselves. We need more, so that people who are struggling understand that they’re not alone. We need more so that people who aren’t struggling are more educated and empathetic. We need more more more… but we also need more diversity and representation in these stories when they are being told.

3. Fellow black people. Based on the above, is it any wonder that some black people really do believe that mental illness is for white people? Since I’ve started being open about my struggles, I’ve been connected to and approached by so many people with similar experiences…almost all of them white. The Black British community has a responsibility to change this. The professionals and the media can (and must) change, but things won’t improve unless we end the stigma within our own community. We need more people like Stormzy. We need more initiatives like this amazing barbershop drop in, where young black men can get a free hair cut and a chance to talk openly and honestly about their mental health. We can all do more. If anyone reading this has any ideas or initiatives already running, please get in touch as I’d love to help.

Black History Month is always bitter sweet. As well as being a reminder of the oppression and pain of our ancestors it can also bring with it a sad feeling that things haven’t changed. But as we celebrate the year that Vogue got a black (Ghanaian woop woop 🇬🇭) Editor-in-Chief, let’s take a moment on World Mental Health Day to be thankful for how far we’ve come, and pledge to do something, even just one thing, in the next 12 months that will have a positive impact on BME mental health in the UK.


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