Mental health in the black community – You are not alone!

With World Mental Health day recently passing on the 10th  October it seemed only right to write a blog post on the topic of mental health, namely in the black community. It seems quite appropriate to explore such topic owing to the fact that we are currently in Black history month!

Despite the evident popularity of mental health campaigning and increasing awareness of mental health issues within the UK; mental health problems among the black community remain increasingly prevalent.

According to current statistics black people are:

  • At an increased risk of being diagnosed and hospitalized for a mental health issues.
  • At an increased risk of disengaging from mainstream mental health services.
  • More likely to present poor treatment outcomes.

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So the major question that has been asked, investigated and appraised by many is: WHY are mental health problems on the rise within the black community?

As a recent master’s graduate of mental health studies at the institute of psychiatry I have read countless academic papers on various topics including: the causes of mental health issues among ethnic minorities, the problem of mental health diagnosis in the context of cultural universality and the cultural barriers of psychological intervention. This being said, I am confident that I can write an entire thesis on the various theoretical perspectives put forward in the current literature; providing explanations for the extortionate statistics that present black people to be increasingly vulnerable to psychological instability. However, due to the word constraints of this blog post (lol) I will attempt to cover the main points, I feel are important for readers to know.  

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Our behaviour is somewhat shaped by our environment

Believe it or not, the environment which surrounds us plays a major role in the break down and promotion of our psychological wellbeing.

According to the current literature, black communities are more likely than others to experience racism; which I am sure everyone has been made aware of through social media (in which we are constantly reminded of the shortcomings of the policing in the United States of America). An individual’s perception of society as racist and the experience of everyday minor acts of discrimination are thought to constitute a chronic stressor; therefore threatening psychological stability. Racism has in fact be associated with increased rates of depression, stress and poorer self-rated health. However, in addition to racial discrimination, members of the black community are further exposed to poor environmental conditions such as bad housing and unemployment both of which research has shown to have a profound effect on psychological wellbeing.

An argument I have presented to my lecturers and peers on many occasions is, surely the way in which members of the black community deal with such threats to psychological wellbeing (i.e. frequently seeking mental health support when faced with environmental stressors) may attenuate their influence. Unfortunately, it has been reported that black people fail to deal with such threats effectively as a result of factors such as the taboo of seeking mental health support.

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Stigmatization of mental health: Suffering in silence

Afro-Caribbean communities in particular have been known to form close knit/supportive networks within the United Kingdom; stemming from well-known historical events such as the voyage of the MV Empire Windrush to which many of my family members were passengers. Resultantly, throughout the 1950s and 1960s community centres and associations were developed in a number of British towns and cities with the aim of serving and supporting Afro-Caribbean populations. Financial support in particular played an important role for the community in times of evident impoverishment i.e. poor housing conditions. Mental health support however, was somewhat neglected and to my dismay still is. I am therefore compelled to ask the question; why does seeking mental health support not bare the same level of significance as other socially supportive practices such as financial support (which is commonly demonstrated through practices such as the famous Caribbean “pardner”) among black communities? One would assume that that the topic of mental health support would be a frequent discussion within the institutions valued dearly by the majority black people, for instance the frequently visited apostolic church or the local Caribbean community centre.  Sadly this is not case. In fact it is commonly reported by members of the black community that they would rather suffer in silence, as opposed to seeking help from either mental health services or family members; due to the negative connotations attached to mental illness, such as a sign of “weakness”. This notion of “suffering in silence” is reflected in the psychological research of Alvidrez et al., (2008). It was reported that members of the black community often feel that mild depression or anxiety would be considered “crazy” in their social milieu. It was further reported by participants that talking about problems with an outsider (i.e., therapist) may be viewed as airing one’s “dirty laundry”. It was in fact expressed by participants that discussions about mental illness would not be appropriate even among family.

So how can this culturally specific approach of “suffering in silence” in dealing with mental health problems become a thing of the past in the black community?

   Education, Education, Education!

I strongly believe that educating members of the black community on mental illness is essential for the problem of such stigmatization to be reduced. Education about mental disorders and the available treatment options can be administered through public education campaigns, educational presentations at community venues (e.g., Black churches) and online public forums.

Misrepresentation of black people within mental health services?

It has been illustrated by statistics that around 88.2% of the clinical psychology workforce in England are of White ethnic origin. In contrast, the percentage of black people practicing as a clinical psychologist’s in the UK is a mere 1.4 %. Similar statistics are shown for social services teams in which 80 % of adult social care workers are of white British background relative to a small figure 10 % of black African/ Caribbean descent.

I find such statistics astonishing owing to the fact that mental health problems are more common among black populations relative to white populations within the UK. It was reported in the guardian that Black men in Britain are 17 times more likely than their white counterparts to be diagnosed with a psychotic illness. It was further reported that whilst 26% of the London borough of Lambeth’s population is black, nearly 70% of the borough’s residents in secure psychiatric settings are of African or Caribbean heritage.

The evident juxtaposition of such statistics leads me to theorize that the origins of mental health problems and poor treatment outcomes among the black community may be partly deep rooted in the lack of ethnic diversity in the services provided for vulnerable individuals. Such lack of ethnic diversity may be a plausible explanation to why members of the black community   fail to make use of psychology’s solution to their emotional hurdles. Some may worry that mental health care practitioners are not culturally competent enough to treat their specific issues. Taking into consideration the presented statistics illustrating the under representation of black professionals in the psychological discipline; I cannot stress enough the importance of Increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the mental health care workforce. This increase in ethnic diversity will undoubtedly allow the adequate provision of culturally competent care to black communities.

I could… and would love to continue for pages and pages, however I am trying my hardest for this to not seem like a university essay. The central message I want to be evoked from this post is that members of the black community should be continuously encouraged to seek support when enduring challenges with mental health; and that there is nothing shameful about mental illness. I feel it important for everyone to know that they should not hold back from seeking help, there will always be someone willing to help.

You are not alone!

If you urgently need to talk to someone there are various services you can call:

  • NHS 111
  • SANE: 0845 767 8000 (6pm-11pm, every day)
  • Samaritans: 0845 790 9090

Interesting links:

  1. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/
  2. http://www.blackmentalhealth.org.uk/

By Zakiya Wisdom    @ZakiyaWisdom

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