Understanding mental health within the Black community.

By Youna Kabongo


Photo credit: Youna Kabongo

In April this year, Prince Harry opened up about his mental health, paving the way to more communication about the stigma that surrounds the disease. The silence surrounding mental illness seems to have broken as this showed that it is not a discriminatory disease. It can visit you regardless of social class or race. So why emphasize mental health in the black community as a different and more complex matter?  

According to the organisation, Mental Health Foundation, which is based in the UK, mental health is often thought of as ‘emotional health’ or ‘well-being’ and it’s just as important as good physical health.

This organisation goes on to state that, ‘We all have mental health which is just as important as our physical health. The World Health Organization defines mental health with similar terminology.

The Foundation also  says, ‘Good mental health helps us to:

  • make the most of your potential
  • cope with life
  • play a full part in your family, workplace, community and among friends.

The Mental Health Foundation continues to advise of the change in mental health status and the associated stigma by stating:

  • ‘Your mental health doesn’t always stay the same. It can change as circumstances change and as you move through different stages of your life.’
  • Again, it says, there’s a stigma attached to mental health problems. This means that people feel uncomfortable about them and don’t talk about them much. Many people don’t even feel comfortable talking about their feelings. But it’s healthy to know and say how you’re feeling.

Accordingly to the Mental Health Foundation, ‘Different ethnic groups have different rates and experiences of mental health problems, reflecting their different cultural and socio-economic contexts and access to culturally appropriate treatments.’

The Mental Health Foundation states, ‘In general, people from black and minority ethnic groups living in the UK are:

  • more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems
  • more likely to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital
  • more likely to experience a poor outcome from treatment
  • more likely to disengage from mainstream mental health services, leading to social exclusion and a deterioration in their mental health.’

The Foundation, states that ‘these differences may be explained by a number of factors, including poverty and racism. These differences may also exits because mainstream mental health services often fail to understand or provide services that are acceptable and accessible to non-white British communities and which meet their particular cultural and other needs. It is likely that mental health problems go unreported and untreated because people in some ethnic minority groups are reluctant to engage with mainstream health services. It is also likely that mental health problems are over-diagnosed in people whose first language is not English.’

Advice provided by the National Health Service (NHS) via: www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Blackhealth/Pages/intropage.aspx states that, ‘People from African and African Caribbean communities are more likely than others to be admitted to hospital for mental illness. The same is also true for people of white and black mixed ethnicity. The NHS website advice continues by saying, ‘Most of us have problems at some time in our lives, such as money worries, stress at work or the death of a loved one, which can affect our mental health. Black communities in the UK are still more likely than others to experience problems such as bad housing, unemployment, stress and racism, all of which can make people ill.’

Part of the problem is that the black community in the UK is not taking leadership in tackling the issue.  Further research needs to be conducted by institutions such as BAME in order to get the people in the government to release funds to train the police and social workers in understanding issues in the black community.

Many Black people didn’t come to the UK by choice but by force, often because they fled from war.  Upon arrival,   they go through the asylum seeking interrogation process, this without getting counselling. The process of being granted asylum status can take years, and in the meantime there is no access to any help and one just has to continue living while still dreaming of being able to go back home.

“As a black person, I had to fight for everything. I flew from my own country to live in the UK as a refugee. To get entry to university was hard because I was not British. After I graduated, I sent countless job applications but was rejected so many times. And when I finally got a job I had to listen to bad jokes about immigrants. It’s a wonder I am still considered sane”, said writer JJ Bola.

“Black people don’t talk about mental health because it is a cultural thing not to talk about emotions; we have been brought up to bottle things up. Admitting that you need help means that you are weak,” said Social Worker, Rachel Tchahatt.

“From my experience working with vulnerable people for five years, black people are more likely to be sectioned than offered counselling, “she added.

One of the reasons that black people are more prone to mental health is that the majority have witnessed violence at one point. Whether it is from their country of origin, in the street, or at home.

Family psychotherapist from Ichthus Family Foundation Liz Mensah said,”the reason why we have so many of our young people sectioned is because there are no adequate help mechanisms available. Many black people and patients I see would like to be seen by someone they can relate to, for instance a black psychologist who has a similar background and who will understand the anger better.

As a society, it must be asked, why mental health needs to be better understood.  It needs to be better understood as it affects the harmony and wellbeing of society as a whole. Likewise understanding mental health affects:

  • how effective the UK government is in implementing its policies.
  • how effective the Police and law authorities are policing predominantly African Caribbean communities and the African Caribbean presence in the prison population.
  • the level of educational attainment of children and youth from African Caribbean communities, as well as employment rates in this community.
  • the number of people unduly detained in the NHS system who could otherwise be treated better.

If more training and expertise is applied to counselling, mentoring and providing support for those in the African Caribbean community with mental health challenges, then it would be an opportunity to resolve many societal issues more effectively. With more expertise and resource applied, the society would most likely see the increase in the effectiveness of government policy implementation, the reduction of crime, the reduction in prison population, an increase in the educational attainment in children and youth in these communities, an increase in employment rates amongst African Caribbeans, and a reduction in the number of individuals from this community stuck in the NHS.

Rachel Tchahaatt, social worker Shacabrook@yahoo.co.uk

JJ Bola, Poet and Writer 07446282677

Liz Mensah Family Psychotherapist, info.iffoundation@gmail.com

Extract of JJ Bola Interview here: https://youtu.be/fQJAQ-m1iwM


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