Disclaimer: I am a white Scottish woman and this post comes from a white, Scottish, female perspective therefore I do not speak for people of colour. This is my attempt to use my privilege to highlight the injustices within mental health awareness. This post mainly deals with people who are black whether this is Caribean American, black-British, African American, South African, Caribbean, Nigerian etc., It touches on many different things, as there is a lot I learned about online. Some topics are discussed more in detail than others.
Over the years, my attitude towards Mental Health Awareness Weeks, Months and Days has changed. Recently, I have found myself more conflicted with such hashtags and campaigns. While I speak about my story with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicidal ideation… and gradually opening up different doors that lead to different avenues of my mental health journey, I am aware of the lazy attitude we all adopt in that we post about this hashtag when it’s ‘hot’ and then don’t really speak about mental health again. Politicians, royalty, celebrities; they adopt this hashtag when its popular and beneficial to their popularity. I read, listen and watch as MPs and PMs, MSPs and FMs talk about how good it is to talk about your mental health and raise awareness for mental health for this week, or day, or month. There’s lots of talk, but little to no action. And, this is the issue with mental health awareness events. There is too much talk, and not enough action. It can be used as a cover up for lack of real movement and progress within the mental health support framework. Awareness weeks can be a way for the people who can make systemic change to act like they are.
So, for a while, I wasn’t sure if it was there any real value in mental health awareness events. I felt conflicted when I took part in them. Was I screaming into the void? I would see numerous tweets and other social media posts denouncing Mental Health Awareness events. What is the point in these days? They mean nothing. It’s like sticking a novelty yellow smiley face plaster on a bullet wound. People were asking for it to be eradicated. People felt stories had been heard enough. Enough talking, time for action.
However, this concept of “enough talking” didn’t always sit right with me. The idea of: you’ve heard our stories, wasn’t something that felt appropriate somewhere at the heart of it. It felt absolute. It felt excluding. It felt finite. I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t until I was participating in a livestream for the National Lottery Community Fund, that I found the words to describe how I was feeling. Or rather, I heard it on the other side of the camera. A Muslim woman who represented Glasgow Association for Mental Health (GAMH) said that she believed mental health awareness events were still needed for people like her. She believed that people who said mental health awareness was not needed were people whose stories were heard all over the world and were the typical cases. I knew that looking at her, she looking back at me, that I was one of the people.
That’s when it hit me squarely in the face. That feeling of discomfort was clear. People who say we should move on are perhaps unaware that it is only their stories that have been heard. We have opened the stage to men, but we have not opened the discussion to all men. The stories from mental health that we do not hear are from the groups that are currently out protesting their right to not be killed in the street, protesting their right to not be demonised, to not be ignored. Right now, they are being ignored within the mental health community.
The people we are ignoring are people of colour.
Yes, your story has been heard. Of course, it’s been heard. The cold hard fact is that white people, namely white people with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety (hi, that’s me), are the ones that are heard. And once they feel they have been heard enough then they want to move on and not think twice about passing the mic on, or sharing the stage altogether.
Don’t get me wrong, action is important. Action should be advocated. But action does not just mean legislation, expanding services. Action means expanding research. Action means listening to marginalised voices. Action means learning. Action and awareness should go hand in hand.
Unfortunately, they don’t, which is the reason why mental health campaigners are frustrated with the weak words of the people who can make systemic change. Even then, these people will only hide behind the comfort of white stories, because they are the ones that are pushed out there. We have discomfort when we discuss mental health, but we’re beginning to get used to the discomfort. Now, we’re in the comfort zone, we share our typical stories.
This is where we get trapped. This is where we begin to think we’ve solved mental health awareness. This is when we think we’ve covered all the bases. This is when we start to ignore the people who have yet to speak out.
Your story has been heard, yes, but their story has not.
In hearing the woman from GAMH tell me that she, as a Muslim woman, did not feel heard, I realised we still need mental health awareness events. I remember nodding so much at this statement that my neck ached, and this has stuck with me to this day. In her words, she still faced stigma with the Muslim community, and she did not see anyone within mental health campaigning who she could relate to. Anyone who was at the forefront of the campaign, anyway. Anyone who had the light shone on them the way people like me would.
It has been shown that there is a level of stigma that remains at a higher degree in communities under the BIPOC and BAME labels. Often their mental health does not get talked about, because for some cultures it carries a stigma of weakness. They are taught not to ask for help. There is a common thread of toxic masculinity within black culture, which prevents men reaching out. Black women have to grow up quicker and feel as though they can’t be seen as weak. Scientific racism and psychological racism used mental illness as a way to keep slaves under bondage, as they were “psychologically unfit for freedom.” Mental health becomes vilified when it is diagnoses within ethnic minorities with research in America changing its perception of schizophrenia as a docile mental illness to an aggressive and dangerous mental illness – when black men and women began to get diagnosed, perhaps mis-diagnosed. Mental health does not get acknowledged within BIPOC and BAME communities for reasons that range from cultural stigma to colonial racism.
The reluctance to step forward with lived experience is a factor in the predominantly homogenous demographic within mental health research. Homogenous is not used in a good way either here. The WEIRD (Western/White, Educated, Industralised, Rich, Democratic) phenomena is a demographic that makes up the majority of studies out there. Unfortunately, this breeds more WEIRD participants and more WEIRD studies. As a result, people who fall outside of the WEIRD demographic experience an exclusion, and they don’t participate in these studies, because they are falsely taught these problems just don’t affect people like me. If all they see is white people, if all they see is western people, if all they see is richer people, then they believe that mental health only affects this demographic.
The findings of research with WEIRD participants then go on to formulate new therapies and new criteria for mental illness. Each mental illness becomes westernised, particularly in its trigger. An example of this is a study in which college students are given a diary entry of a young girl with some being told she was black, some told she was white, and some told she was Hispanic. The entry described eating disorder behaviour and they were asked to diagnose her behaviour. If she was white, she was more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. Additionally, eating disorders carry strong ideology in what purges look like, what body image ideals are sought after. Purging methods and body image is found to be different in ethnic minorities.
Overall mental illness is deeply rooted in western terminology. Some western ideals may consider non-western (or culture-bound syndromes) mental illnesses as ‘crazy’ or ‘fake’ or ‘this is just some weird witchcraft, shaman-type crap.’ No offence to witches. For instance, the cultural endemic psychiatric illness known as Wendigo Psychosis. Although this diagnosis is now considered rare and thought to be myth, people may brush this off as an excuse to gloss over brutally violent and savage crimes. When in reality, this could be a mental illness exemplifying itself through culture. When in western-reality, people who have psychotic episodes have been violent to themselves as well as others out of pure fear from the terrifying thing that is psychosis. As mentioned above, psychosis, particularly schizophrenia, an already heavily stigmatised diagnosis, becomes even more vilified when it’s attached to black people, especially black men. Often, traumatic events can lead to psychosis being triggered; one in which is solitary confinement within incarceration (see Kalief Browder).
Additionally, there is not a great deal of understanding or an attempt to understand the differing levels of trauma within communities of colour. Different cultures, races, and ethnicities have shown symptoms of transgenerational trauma from black slavery to indigenous clearances and genocide to Holocaust survivors. Many of them are in a state of survival mode, because they have known their families and communities to suffer horrendously. This can lead to anxiety, shame, eating disorders, attachment disorders, emotional neediness, PTSD etc., It can lead to parents becoming authoritarian and over-protective of their children because they don’t want their children and their children’ children to suffer the same fate. This can also go the other way with parents being the overly-protected ones.
This is not helped by the dismissal of the people who were the oppressors when this trauma first formulated. Statements like “slavery happened a long time ago“, “you’re not in the camps now“, “look at the rights you have!” This leads to generations being forced to relive their trauma, while being made to believe that their stories do not matter, that their trauma does not matter, that it does not exist. When they are told that mental health awareness is not needed while they haven’t been given the chance to speak, they may feel like their story does not deserve the spotlight. My story is not something people will be interested in. The stories that matter have been told, and this world does not think my story doesn’t matter. Maybe my mental health doesn’t matter.
They are also made to relive this trauma and they don’t get a real chance to heal. For example, PTSD can only begin its healing process when the climate feels safe. Effectively, your trauma should be in the past. But for many it is not. Look at what is happening in America right now. You tell me how African Americans are meant to heal when they see their people being part of a mass incarceration, their votes are being suppressed, black people are being killed in the streets, in their homes, jogging… They live with this trauma from the days of slavery, the days of Jim Crow, the days of segregation. They are not allowed to heal. They don’t receive the appropriate help to heal. They must be strong in the face of adversity. This adds to the numerous amounts of stigma within different communities of colour and mental health.
You watch on the news as they discuss the rising levels of BIPOC/BAME youth in prison for something that has stemmed from an untreated and ignored mental health difficulty or illness. This only worsens as their sentence continues RE: Kalief Browder. They become stuck in cycles of trauma. They are not allowed to tell their story because they may carry a different culture. A culture that is different to many white people who, if they don’t relate, will not listen.
Mental health action and awareness needs to take place, and it needs to be intersectional. It cannot just rely on the research out there right now. That very WEIRD research. There is a lot to unpack, and I have touched base on it, and I have actually began to learn a lot around mental health and communities of colour. It’s time we shared the stage and allowed the spotlight on marginalised communities within the mental health community.
Yes, your story has been heard. But, now it’s time for their story to be heard.
If you want more information in how you can donate or help in the Black Lives Matter movement then click the link here.
If you are someone who identifies as BIPOC, BAME, or POC, and would like to share your story of your mental health journey or experiences, then please don’t hesitate to message me and I will happily share your story here with your consent.