Mental health awareness is a great thing, but it’s not a “one shoe fits all” kind of issue.
Mental health is not something openly discussed in black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. As a Nigerian-born, London-raised woman, I’m still apprehensive talking about my own mental health. When I did discuss it, the response I received was: “go to church and pray about it.”
And it seems I’m not the only one who has received such a response within our communities.
Maria Munir is from a tight-knit Muslim Pakistani community in Watford who grew up hearing prayer was the answer. “It’s a kind of reflection. People often prayed with the tasbih, or rosary beads, when stressed. I found I felt calmer when I’d recite the durood shareef.” However, the International human rights campaigner realised they had rarely heard discussions on anything beyond religious solutions. “When I went to Pakistan, I saw people go to a spiritual man in order to hear natural and religious remedies for their mental health issues. It’s almost like the community thought religion was the easiest way to sort things out.”
Within BAME communities, there’s still a stigma attached to mental health – and this is most prevalent in the black community.
Professor Dinesh Bhugra, President of the World Psychiatric Association explains that “People from BAME backgrounds can sometimes have different perceptions of a mental health condition, for example, as a social or supernatural condition cause by non-biological factors. This means that they might hesitate to seek professional help. Even if younger generations recognise that the illness has a biological origin, older family members may still see it as mythical or supernatural, which can delay treatment. ”
He highlights the importance of the NHS being culturally competent, so it is able to provide treatment in a culturally sensitive manner. And it’s true – if people feel alienated from services due to their cultural background, what hope is there of them accessing the right treatment?
One of the problems lies in the definition of “mental health”, which has been socially constructed and defined by Western standards. In my Nigerian culture, such mental health conditions are harder to define and understand. If you’re depressed, you’re just sad. If you suffer from a severe mental health condition, God is punishing you for your wrongdoings.
Whatever the belief, somehow it ends up being your fault. You blame yourself. You think you’re not trying hard enough to be better, and because of that you don’t seek help – which helps no one.
Aisha Ali-Khan was diagnosed with postnatal depression after the birth of her son, and as someone from the South Asian community, she felt that “one of the biggest barriers to understanding depression is there is no physical symptoms. It is easier for some people to blame symptoms of depression…on black magic or simply attention seeking behaviour but the reality is people are scared of accepting someone is depressed because then they would have to begin to address the cause of the condition.”
According to the Mental Health Foundation, African-Caribbean people in the UK have lower rates of common mental disorders than other ethnic groups; however we are three to five times more likely than any other group to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital for severe mental illnesses.
Everyday life has a big impact on our mental health, but when you add the matters of cultural and religious beliefs, the result would undeniably have a part to play in the aforementioned reactions we have to mental health.
Nigerian Author Eche Egbuonu was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during the summer of 2015 which led to being sectioned. “The whole ordeal took a huge toll on my family and friends. With no family history of ill mental health, it was wholly unexpected”, Eche explains. “I was raised where mental health for many is viewed through a religious/spiritual lens. Because of the dearth of psychiatrists, spiritual healers are often involved. In certain instances, patients are shackled.”
Prior to his episode, mental health had never been discussed in his family, and the resilience he felt from his parents made him reluctant to reach out.
But action is now being taken. Eche is now using his experience to work with Find a Balance, a service supplying support for mental health sufferers within BAME communities.
In addition to Eche’s work, an Instagram account, @thegoodquote , which boasts almost 13 million followers, aims to spread good vibes one post at a time. Meggan Roxanne is the 28 year old founder. She also found it difficult to accept and speak about her mental health problems within her community. After dropping out of university, quitting her job and staying in her room for 6 months, Meggan found the inspiration from an unlikely source… Wiz Khalifa’s “Kush and Orange Juice” mixtape.
“I’m British but my heritage is West Indian – Trinidadian. In my community, mental health is rarely addressed due to a lack of awareness and information. People simply don’t talk about it. In the West Indies, religion is the moral foundation of our society, and abnormalities of the mind are commonly attached to a spiritual influence. In extreme cases, in some islands, it is still common practice for people to seek healing through exorcisms, due to the assumption that demon possession and witchcraft is solely responsible for the condition.”
Research showed BAME individuals are more likely to experience negative outcomes from mainstream mental health services. And when it is claimed that we are more likely to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital, more likely to experience a poor outcome from treatment and more likely to disengage, leading to social exclusion and a deterioration in our mental health, it is not surprising why we look for solutions solely within our own communities.
We need to create a mental health service that creates and promotes services that are more culturally acceptable and accessible to those from non-white British communities. Only then can we help those who feel isolated and unable to access help.
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