Let’s Talk About Black Mental Health…

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Right now, the racial injustice across the globe is indisputable, and the horrifying recent deaths of Black individuals at the hands of the police have prompted many of us to come together in solidarity to demand justice.

We recently became aware that Coronavirus is having a ‘disproportionate impact’ on Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people, but there also seems to be a clear disparity in the way that Black people access and receive mental health care…

At this time where there is heightened awareness of the struggles Black people have been facing for centuries due to systemic racism, we need to be unpicking all of the layers and stitching racial equality into the fabric of our society, especially where issues have already been highlighted. Please note: I’m not claiming that Black mental issues should be favoured by the mental health system; everybody’s mental health experiences are equally valid and important, regardless of race. We just want a level playing field.

44 Black Mental Health Support Resources for Anyone Who Needs Them
Image credit: Gun Karlsson/Adobe Stock

The Statistics:

  • According to the Race Equality Foundation, people from African and Caribbean backgrounds are three to four times more likely to be diagnosed or admitted into hospital for schizophrenia than white patients, and there is a greater chance of ethnic minorities being offered medication rather than talking therapies (research suggests that a combination of both medication and talking therapy is the more effective than medication alone).
  • A Public Health report from 2014 showed us that Black or Black British females are more likely than White British females to report common mental health disorders.
  • Black men, particularly, are 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious mental health condition, and six times more likely than white men to be an in-patient or sectioned to a mental health hospital.
  • Black people are also at a higher risk of ending up in crisis care, rather than accessing support sooner through a GP, and more likely to be detained.

Now, these statistics aren’t just coincidences. There are a number of factors that could account for these figures. And I need to say, it isn’t just a case of Black people being misdiagnosed or treated unfairly by the mental health system – it would be unfair for me to make that blanket statement as there are so many brilliant mental health professionals doing a world of good – but this is yet another effect of society putting black people at a general disadvantage.

Here are some of the main factors we need to consider:

Psychological Impact of Race-Based Trauma: As we well know (unless you’ve literally been living under a rock) many black people experience racism in their daily lives; from ‘casual’ micro-aggressions and racial biases, to verbal and physical aggression. According to the Mental Health Foundation ‘there is a growing body of research to suggest that those exposed to racism may be more likely to experience mental health problems such as psychosis and depression.’

Inequalities in Society: this relates to the deeply ingrained institutional racism that makes it a lot harder for BAME people, as opposed to white people, to access opportunities in life. Institutional racism is defined as ‘the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping’.

Research shows that BAME people are more likely to experience poverty and homelessness, face more barriers to employment, and have poorer educational outcomes. It’s not hard to see how this could contribute to development of mental health issues.

Stigma within the Black Community: There is also the issue that in some Black communities and cultures, mental health is still a big taboo subject, something brushed under the rug and rarely spoken about. Mental health can be seen as a weakness, and so it can be harder from people within these communities to seek help for their problems. This – combined with the fact that there is a lot of stigma surrounding men’s mental health in general, could make it harder for Black men to access mental health support at the time that they need it. (via NAMI).

Keith Dube is a young British Black man who appeared on BBC3 Documentary Being Black, Going Crazy?. The show focused on his own struggles with depression, as well as Black mental health in general in the UK. In an interview with Vice, he said “Where I grew up, they’d tell stories of ‘they’ll lock you up,’ and when you hear that you think to yourself: ‘I’m not mentioning any of my issues then. I don’t want to get locked up.’ You think it’s something that just happens so easily, like you can go to hospital and never leave.”

What You Learn Making a Film About Black Mental Health in ...
Image: Keith Dube via Vice.com

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All of this considered, it’s not at all surprising that there is racial inequality within the operations of the mental health care system too.

Dr Jacqui Dyer is a social care consultant who has been a mental health service user herself. Having such a personal connection with the mental health system, she has seen first-hand many of the system’s failings regarding BAME people particularly.

She set up Black Thrive, a partnership for wellbeing, after Sean Rigg, a Black man experiencing psychotic episodes, died in Lambeth at the hands of the police. An inquest had found that the system had failed him and let him slip through the net, neglecting his many requests for help. Black Thrive is built on the idea that people and organisations from a wide variety of backgrounds are needed to tackle mental health inequalities.

Dyer says: “what we’ve learned at Black Thrive is that we have to address a symmetry of power in this social movement that we have embarked on, and that we use dialogue to identify our shared goals. And the focus is on top down, bottom up, diagonal, horizontal, every which way but loose, we are attending to this issue and that we want to and are delivering and embedding change.”

With a mental health system so under-resourced and ill-equipped to deal with the high demand, it can be difficult enough for anyone to access appropriate mental health support. As it is, many people are waiting as long as 18 months to receive therapy – this shouldn’t be made any more difficult due to being simply Black.

So What Next?

There is a need for fair assessment and treatment for people of all backgrounds. How can we make sure that these inequalities are addressed moving forward? We ultimately need those in power to acknowledge the issues and implement change. Sure, there’s no overnight fix, and I’m not claiming to know all the intricate inner workings of the mental health or political system. But, this is a unique time. There is so much information being shared online, on our social feeds, in response to racial injustice.

We can harness the power this has to raise awareness, to inform and educate – our voices are such powerful tools right now! We need to speak about mental health, we need to speak about Black mental health, and create supportive spaces for Black people to speak about their experiences of the mental health care system.

I’m a young campaigner for a mental health movement called Make Our Rights Reality. We’re a national campaign that is standing up for young people’s human rights to better mental health care and we fight for the rights of ALL young people. With the current pandemic in mind, need for mental health care is suggested to escalate, so there is even more reason to address the issues within the system. If you would like to help us reach people in power to make improvements in youth mental health care, you can sign our petition here.

There is a brilliant charity called Black Minds Matter who work to make mental health topics relevant and accessible for all black people in the U.K. They support as many Black individuals as they can to receive specialist help, which they cover the costs for. You can follow their socials or donate to help them continue their work.

And for anyone on instagram, follow @blackmentalhealthmatters_ for empowering and helpful content.

If you’re in need of support, Mind lists a variety of support information and helplines on their website, including how to find services in your area.

We all have a responsibility to continue the conversation on racial justice. Lets keep it going.

Sophie x

(Note: I’ve included some figures which specified ‘BAME’ individuals, as this is a category which is used a lot in research, to categorise the experiences of Black people as well as other minority ethnicities. There are commonalities between the experiences of Black people and other minority ethnic groups, but it was important to also highlight research specific to Black people, as the inequalities of the Black community are also very different.)

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What’s wrong with my hair? A reminder of where I don’t meet society’s ideals

My hair is something that has shaped my identity from a very young age, and I know a lot of other afro-haired girls (and boys even) would identify with this. Whether I liked it or not,  it quickly became an indicator of how I was different from most of my school friends and peers, how I wasn’t like them. I remember being frustrated that my tight curls (usually in two puffed bunches during primary school) wouldn’t ‘hang down’ in nice swinging pigtails like the other girls in my class. I remember feeling restless if my thick unruly hair wasn’t neat enough when I was dropped off to school in the morning;  that I would stand out and draw attention to myself too much. Other kids would often ask to touch it, it was novel and unusual (Newcastle isn’t exactly the most thriving multi-cultural city in the UK) and while at such a young age I definitely wasn’t aware of the racial significance of this, it did always make me aware that I was the odd one out and that my hair was one of the main defining factors in that.

(Image via Metro.co.uk)

So I began a very unhealthy relationship with my natural hair…feeling ashamed of its thickness, the texture and the inability to easily achieve the styles that I so desperately wanted, the styles that I became to believe were better and more beautiful. I became very aware that natural afro hair textures weren’t widely celebrated in the media; most of the images I was surrounded with were of black women with perfectly long, glossy weaves or relaxed hair. Don’t get me wrong, of course there were still black women with their natural afro curls displayed, but they were never at the fore-front, never represented enough. And I’m keen to note, my frustration with my hair doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of my heritage at all, I’m very much proud of my mixed- half Ghanaian, half British background. However, living in a predominantly white society, I don’t always feel I ‘fit’ into the aesthetic of what is desired and what is celebrated by Western culture.

I recently watched a TEDx Talk by Cheyenne Cochrane called A celebration of natural hair and it’s given me a lot of food for thought, a deeper understanding to why I feel the way I do about my hair. In her talk she speaks about the origins of why black women have come to believe that long, straight hair is better, more beautiful and more acceptable in Western society. She references African-American women, but of course this has greatly shaped the societal beauty ideals for black British women too… She explains how in Post-Civil War America,  hair was the most ‘telling’ feature of negro status. Basically, the more typically ‘negro’ you looked, i.e small, tight, afro curls, the more you drew attention to your race- which of course in these times was a bad thing. Society decided that Black, in its natural state, did not equal beautiful. It formed a basic rule that the looser the curl pattern, the better the hair, and to put it simply, the less in-your-faceblack you looked. Dependence on hair-presses and relaxers became a necessity in order to fit in with white society and in turn, survive. These institutionalised ideals have infiltrated into modern society and continue to define our cultural identity and the way we view ourselves.

As black and mixed-race women, its just a given we spend a LOT of time, money and effort on achieving and maintaining our hairstyles. Partly, because our hair textures require a lot more maintenance to be kept healthy and manageable (our hair generally tends to be drier, retain less moisture and more prone to breakage) but also because of the societal pressures to have ‘good hair‘.  We’ve allowed society to dictate to us how we can and can’t look, and more frustratingly, we go to extreme lengths in order to achieve these constructed ideals. There are many things that black women feel they have to do to their natural hair in order to fit in with western beauty ideals that frankly, our white girl-friends don’t have to do. It’s just how it tends to go, no blame or criticism intended (maybe just more than an ounce of envy though on my part, if I’m being truthful).

Staying over at friends’ houses during school days, they’d often remark on how long it took me to get ready in the mornings, not understanding the level of TLC that my unruly tresses demand. I envied the fact that their morning regimes didn’t require that same amount of effort. That they could slide a brush through it fairly easily and not think much of wearing it down, free, out of the constraints of a hair ties and bands and scarves and clips if they chose to. Looking for salons that dealt with my kind of hair was a whole different ball game too. If I was to go to any regular hair-dresser they would look at my hair in bewilderment, I couldn’t expect them to know the protocol for my texture and would be putting them in an awkward position, so I needed to find an afro-hair specialist but also be willing to part with a hefty amount of cash (sometimes with extra added onto the standard price due to my hair being ‘so thick’ to quote one of the very few afro hair establishments in my area…fair, right?). So in turn, hair appointments became a thing of slight terror —-occasionally paired with the excitement of getting a new look— but mostly seen as a slightly unpleasant (sometimes physically painful!) experience.

Cheyenne notes how, from a young age, we subject our scalps to such harsh straightening chemicals, often resulting in bald spots, breakage, hair loss and even burns. We also fry our hair at unnervingly high temperatures in order to achieve a straight look, or alternatively we cover it with weaves and wigs in order to hide the natural texture beneath, as if shameful. This, I’ve become accustomed to, trying out most styles I could think of, intent on not having my natural hair on display at whatever cost.

I remember being about 16 or 17 on a school trip, standing at the toilet mirrors with a friend. During this particular hair phase, my hair was relaxed and I used a long clip-in pony-tail hair piece to get the length I wanted. Whilst un-clipping the ponytail in order to re-jig the placement, my friend stared at me as though I was casually taking out an eyeball instead of just a piece of synthetic hair, commenting ‘ugh.. that’s so weird!’ when I removed it from my shorter ponytail underneath. I felt really taken aback by her comment, and suddenly really self-conscious too, even though in reality, it’s something that most black women do with their hair, and no more unusual than white girls who wear extensions.

There is pressure to achieve these long, straight styles, yet the ways in which we achieve these (as afro hair does not naturally and easily adhere to these styles) seems to be looked down upon. It’s almost as though ‘you can have nice, straight hair, but we don’t want to see your weave tracks, or in fact any indication that your hair isn’t naturally like that’. And I don’t want to single out that school friend, thats just one small example, and I know she didn’t mean it with any malice. But I feel it highlights the difference between growing up with an aesthetic that mainly supports western beauty ideals, and one that doesn’t so much.

It’s not surprising that the majority of successful and iconic black women we see in the media- Beyonce, Rihanna, Kerry Washington, Michelle Obama to name just a few, seem to generally sport straight hair styles. Cheyenne remarks on this, explaining that maybe its simply just a preferred style, but that its also very possible that they feel that they had to present themselves this way in order reach the success status they are at today. It’s ridiculous that there is still such a shame stigma around natural hair, but so easy to see why.

There is a new revolution of women championing the Natural Hair Movement- celebrating their natural textures and ditching the trend of straightening and forcing harmful chemicals onto the hair. Cheyenne being one of these women, as she talks about at the end of her Ted talk. These women are stamping un-healthy pressures to straighten and tame on the head and instead embracing their curls proudly and bravely. Whilst I absolutely commend this movement and the brilliant women pioneering it, its still a process for me personally and I don’t know how long it will take for me to become fully confident with wearing my hair in its natural state, as it is as much an internal journey than anything, but it’s something I’m inspired by and work towards.

I’d be interested to hear from any other curly/coily/kinky girls who this resonates with, or alternatively those who have had much different experiences with their natural hair, I know theres no one-size-fits-all.

Click below to Cheyenne Cochrane’s brilliantly compassionate and inspiring TED talk:

Cheyenne Cochrane: A Celebration of natural hair

and for my fellow curlies, follow her instagram @onmylevel_chey for helpful tips and advice for styling and caring for your hair

love, S x

New Year, New Me same me, much further ahead than before

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I’m conflicted when it comes to the trend of making New Years resolutions… on one hand I try to be an optimist and I think its great to create goals that give you a sense of motivation and to improve things in your life, but on the other hand I hate the cliché ‘New Year, New Me’ notion and the massive pressure we can put on ourselves to have some sort of re-birth in the New Year. The extreme diet goals that you see people on social media set themselves… all the many milestone-type achievements people strive towards. I’ve done it plenty of times, thinking that when the clock strikes 00:00 on NYE I need to somehow feel a noticeable change throughout me like an electrical current, a full body rejuvenation, and that if I’m not entering that new year feeling refreshed, happy and confident it’s a bad omen for the rest of the year to come.

We can end up focusing too much energy on these goals that are meant to define us as being better versions of ourselves, however a lot of the time these goals are unattainable, un-realistic and maybe we just expect them to happen magically without any real process involved. If we haven’t shed that weight by Spring or got that job or joined that dance class or been travelling to several different continents and rescued some endangered animals (etc etc) we can feel as if we’re inadequate and as if we’ve failed ourselves. It can be a recipe for self-loathing and comparison for a great deal of us, so I think its time to be a bit kinder to ourselves.

I’m deciding to re-frame my idea of New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t think looking forward has to be all about completely changing ourselves, but more so carrying on with some of the good steps we’ve already made in the previous year. I’m going to take some time to reflect on the things that actually have went well and have improved and try to think of ways to continue in than vein or inject them into my life even more. I think goals are great within reason, but I’m going to make them as touchable as possible, without putting rigid time-scales on them which I’ll undoubtedly break, and giving lieu-way for those inevitable times where life simply just gets in the way.

I was inspired the other day by a Japanese technique called ‘Shikata Ga Nai‘ which I came across in a daily Shine message. Shine is a free, self improvement app that sends you little daily pep-talk messages with links to interesting articles to spur you through the day. It’s not wishy-washy or corny though (which a lot of similar types of apps can be like and can totally put me off!). The messages are straight-talking and usually have reference to some psychological evidence or research. Aaanyway…..the art of ‘Shikata Ga Nai‘ is essentially about letting go of the things that you can’t change or control, washing your hands of the less-than-ideal things in life that come up but cannot be helped. It’s all about not dwelling on these things (easier said than done, I know) but in essence taking comfort in the fact that you’re not obligated to spend any energy on it at all.  I plan to channel some of this into 2019 and direct my energy into more of the things that I enjoy.

There’s also a great article here that perfectly explains how to create achievable and productive New Year habits  ↓

How to Actually Enjoy—And Stick With—Your New Year’s Goals

Let’s (un) officially put ‘New Year, New Me’ to bed!

Peace, ♥︎  and a Happy New Year

S x

Change, fitting into ‘the system’ and why Bambi is my spirit animal

Thanks for joining me on my first blog post! I’m Sophie, a twenty four year old graduate (I promise this isn’t where I delve into a long x-factor-audition-style life story) and I’m a novice when it comes to blogging so I hope you’ll stick with me and excuse any Bridget Jones-esque ramblings that may take place whilst I get to grips with this.

I wanted to talk today about change…and the difficulties and expectations of dealing with significant life shifts. I’ve recently graduated from University where I studied a four year degree in Fashion design, and much like many many other graduates, I find myself thrust into the incredibly daunting and bewildering working world where presumably I should know what I’m doing. Much like Bambi’s first time on the ice, hooves flailing in different directions as he scrambles about, learning to walk (yes, I really did just make that metaphor), it can feel a great deal like that when dealing with this new, uncertain experience of adult life: stumbling, falling flat on your face, making careful steps on the unsteady ground beneath you. It’s scary, and unless you’re fortunate to have a concrete plan and a career ready to go, it can feel pretty overwhelming trying to navigate this strange and unfamiliar time. I, for one, find myself feeling that I should have it all sussed out by now, my ‘purpose’ I guess; the exact job or career that is my perfect fit, where I’ll feel fulfilled and which encompasses all the things I’m good at. Whilst this may be a reality for some, and that’s really great, for a lot of us it seems to take a bit more time and we don’t glide so easily straight into our dream career. I think I’m learning, albeit slowly, that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ mould for adult life, things may not happen the way we’re led to think they’re meant to….and that that’s actually okay!

I think the education system, as great as it can be, carves out this pretty rigid order of how your life should flow: school followed by college or university and then straight into the exact job that matches your degree, in a smooth, orderly fashion. Now I’m not completely naive, and I did realise during my University experience that this system isn’t always the reality for everyone, but there isn’t a lot of preparation or guidance given for the very plausible possibility of things not following that route, and so you can feel like you’re inadequate when you find yourself in amongst the 9 to 5 world without a concrete life plan, like a Bambi in the headlights. You can feel like you’re failing by feeling uncertain or not fitting into the ‘expected’ route. If you think of how incredibly different we all are as individuals, as humans in fact, why would there be a ‘one size fits all’ formula to life anyway?! It doesn’t make sense; our bodies are formed differently; we all have unique capabilities, strengths, weaknesses, interests and temperaments so surely what’s right and good for one person could be the complete opposite for the next.  It’s so easy to compare ourselves to others who appear to be succeeding and achieving all the things we feel we should be too, something which, admittedly, I find myself doing A LOT. But it’s not a race, in fact there is no race at all! We come from different backgrounds, different upbringings, challenges, experiences and starting points, so you can’t fairly compare two things that didn’t start at the same place. The idea of this is beginning to provide me with a bit of comfort and solace to know that I can dictate my own ‘system’…that it’s fine to still be unsure of things and figuring out what matters to me, what gives me fulfilment and carving out a way of doing those things, even if it isn’t instantaneous, its a process. We spend the majority of our waking lives working so why not make it enjoyable?!

Sophie x

P.S: Bambi gets there in the end doesn’t he? He finds his feet, with a little help from his friend Thumper, and is walking upright in no time. Yes it was daunting and probably didn’t happen at the pace he wanted it to, but he figured it out. I’m definitely one of the Bambi’s of this world and y’know what? I think I’m okay with that, or at least beginning to be. #Whatwouldbambido?

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