Why we need to talk about black mental health
As a young, black researcher at the beginning of a career in mental health research, something that has really struck me on my journey so far is the disparities and inequalities faced by black people with mental health issues and the lack of awareness in black communities.
Before working in the SPI Lab, the research group that brings Inspire the Mind to you, I spent some time volunteering at a mental health NHS trust in London. I met lots of lovely people who were going through a really tough time, but it’s not a coincidence that most of the people I met were people of colour. In fact, there is an overrepresentation of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in crisis care, and Black people are detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act at a rate four times higher than white people.
Despite having experienced mental health issues myself, and being a psychology student, I was unaware of just how many people who look like me are affected by mental health problems, and I was shocked to come face to face with the reality of it. It’s something that has made me ever more grateful for the excellent care that I received, and the recovery that I was able to make as a result.
Black people in the UK face inequalities in many aspects of their lives; for example, in a previous blog, Dinesh Bhugra outlined some of the health inequalities we face and highlighted the need for an office for minority health. As you can imagine, this is also the case when it comes to mental health. A list of some of the research findings and key statistics can be found on the website of the mental health charity Mind. But, in summary:
Black people, especially black women, are more likely than any other group to experience a common mental health issue
There is a higher prevalence of psychosis (a less common, but more severe mental health problem) in black men in particular
But black people receive less support for their mental health than white people and other ethnic groups
If they do access treatment, this is more likely to be in crisis care or through a police, criminal justice or social services route
When receiving treatment in hospitals, black people are more likely to be restrained and to be detained in hospital more than once
So, it’s clear that a lot of work needs to be done to address these disparities. Indeed, you can also read about the work that is currently being done to reform the Mental Health Act on the Mind website. But why is it that black people are not getting the help they need before it gets to a crisis point?
Some studies have sought to investigate this, and a few different factors have been suggested. For example, one study in 2016 examined perceived barriers from the perspective of BAME individuals. It highlights the roles played by stigma and a lack of awareness of symptoms of mental disorders as well as the services available amongst people from BAME backgrounds. Some black people have also reported negative experiences of treatment as well as racism within healthcare services.
Though this was not my personal experience when I was receiving treatment, it unfortunately has been for some. It also affects mental health practitioners, with 6 in 10 BAME psychiatrists saying they have experienced racism in the workplace, which in turn affects the care they can provide to patients.
And so, two key things are needed so that black people can get help before it gets to a crisis point:
1) More mental health awareness and literacy in black communities; and
2) Improvements in mental health services so that people of all colours feel able and welcome to receive excellent quality mental health care.
I believe it is particularly crucial that efforts are made to raise awareness within black communities and give black people who are experiencing mental health difficulties the tools they need to be able to understand, conceptualise and validate what they’re experiencing.
Efforts have been made to raise awareness about mental health issues in general over the past few decades and we have come to see that mental illness is like physical illness. But the events of last summer, with the death of George Floyd and subsequent activism, have shone a light on the structural racism within our society, and proved that we need to be actively anti-racist in order to break down these systems and bring black people back up to a level playing field. And the fact that black people are still less able to access treatment goes to show that we need more awareness and education efforts that are targeted specifically towards black communities, or they will only continue to be left behind.
The reality is that mental health is still quite stigmatised in black communities, and this is posing a barrier to healthcare. That’s why people like Stormzy opening up about depression is vital in our efforts to get care to those who need it. It can be difficult to come to terms with having a mental illness, and it is often seen as a weakness.
At times I have also felt that black people are just expected to be strong and face all the adversity that is thrown at us. To an extent, it’s not like we have much choice in the matter anyway, there is nothing you can do to change the colour of your skin, and so we often have to put on a tough skin just to get through it.
But a mental illness is just that, an illness. It’s not a personal weakness, and you don’t have to go through it alone; you can get help. Please don’t suffer in silence.
We all want to see black excellence and black people thriving, so here’s how you can take care of your mental health to make sure nothing holds you back:
If you would like to improve your general mental health and wellbeing, Every Mind Matters is an excellent NHS tool with lots of information.
If you’re concerned about or experiencing any of these symptoms, or any other symptoms of mental illness, please contact your GP.
Excessive feelings of sadness or feeling low
Excessive worrying or fear
Problems concentrating and learning or confused thinking
Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
If you would prefer to speak to a therapist who looks like you, organisations such as BlackMindsMatterUK and The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network can help to connect you to therapists from BAME backgrounds.
A number of mental health services specifically for black people are available locally, such as the Sandwell African Caribbean Mental Health Foundation in Brimingham and the West Midlands. Check which services are available in your local area.
If you are feeling suicidal or experiencing any other mental health emergency, call 999 or go to your local A&E. Or you can call the Samaritan’s for free on 116 123.