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Jack Maffucci
Photography Jack Maffucci

Black Minds Matter: confronting racism as a mental health crisis

There are deeply entrenched inequalities in mental health treatment, and as the Black Lives Matter movement rises with centuries of trauma behind it, Black minds are vital to protect

Social media has been overwhelming in the last few weeks. Sandwiched between stories of socially distant park meet-ups and photos of June’s blooming roses, my Instagram feed has been awash with murderous videos of Black men and women being brutally abused, beaten, and tormented because of the colour of their skin.

As someone with a high emotional frequency, I’ve been deeply moved by the recent political upheaval. But this is to say nothing of the emotional impact of those who have experienced discrimination at school or work. It says nothing of the feelings of those who have unfairly been at the receiving end of racial slurs, verbal and physical abuse in pubs, clubs or bars. It says nothing further, of the trauma of those subjected to the social, political and economic inequality upheld by systemic racism, their entire lives.

Instead of asking Black people what they think about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Meg Zeenat Wamithi, Mental Health Campaigner and founder of My Mind Matters Too suggests we should be asking them how they feel. “The trauma that the black community has faced during the BLM movement only offers a brief insight to the years of trauma we have faced on a day to day basis for the last 200 years.”

A large body of research shows the adverse physical and psychological impact of racism and is considered a fundamental cause of adverse health outcomes for racial/ethnic minorities and racial/ethnic inequities in health. Traumatisation occurs due to experiences of racism, often known as racial trauma, and is a result of experiences of discrimiantion in the workplace or hate crimes and can have adverse psychological effects, resulting in feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, helplessness and merits a DSM-5 diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when all symptoms of PTSD are shown to be present.

“We noticed issues such as COVID-19 and the unjust killing of Black people in America were bringing out so many different emotions from built up anger, sadness, and unprocessed trauma patterns among the Black community” explains Agnes Mwakatuma co-founder of Black Minds Matter UK (BMMuk), a fundraising platform setup in response to the current BLM movement to provide Black people with free mental health support in the form of therapy sessions.

“We had a chat two weeks ago about how amazing it would be if someone started a fund to help as many Black people as possible access therapy. Then we quickly realised that no change would happen unless we did it ourselves.”

Thanks to internet virality, in just two weeks BMMuk has managed to raise almost half a million pounds, and is still accepting funds, which will be used to connect as many Black people with professional Black therapists as possible. Overwhelmed by the response, Mwakatuma and her co-founder Annie Nash, are currently in the process of vetting therapists, “ensuring they are part of a board, they have the correct qualifications, personal liability insurance, a recent DBS check and most importantly, care about our mission.”

While the fund has been created in response to the current BLM Movement, there is a broader conversation to be had around Black people’s mental health beyond the current crisis. “There has always been a need for an initiative like BMMuk,” Mwakatuma tells me.  “Statistics very clearly show that Black people have faced racial injustice, higher unemployment and homelessness rates than white counterparts for decades. Now more than ever we are constantly being reminded of the fact that these issues are still very prevalent in our community.”

In the US, the 1999 Surgeon General Report on Mental Health: Culture, Race and Ethnicity revealed that clients that identified as racial minorities were less likely than whites to receive quality mental health care, and 20 years later we are facing the same challenges. In the UK, research shows Black people are over four times more likely than white people to be detained or ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act.

Many cite stigma and lack of awareness of mental health within Black communities to be one of the issues around care. “I was born and raised in the UK in a Nigerian household so mental health wasn’t something that was ever discussed,” explains Ollie Olanipekun, east London-based creative director and founder behind Superimpose and Futurimpose. “There’s still a slight taboo in regards to mental health and people of colour.”

“Growing up, you quickly learn that racism is going to be common-place throughout your life. You learn to internalise it and park it somewhere deep in your brain.” – Ollie Olanipekun

Olanipekun tells me that living with racism has had a long lasting impact on his psychological well-being. “Growing up, you quickly learn that racism is going to be common-place throughout your life. You learn to internalise it and park it somewhere deep in your brain: this is the only way you can survive,” he says, explaining that it is the covert racism and microaggressions which are most damaging. “The result is living in that never-ending state of paranoia, where you do your best, where you outshine, but you’re still not chosen.” As for the current state of Black mental health, Olanipekun says that the BLM movement is challenging many to relive some of the most traumatic experiences of their entire lives, “a hurt that no one should have to go through”.

Deconstructing the psychological impact of racism and addressing the barriers to Black mental health care is important in the fight for social justice. “Mental health is as critical in the fight for equality as physical health, socioeconomic standing, and education,” explains Viccki Uwannah, counselling psychologist at The School of Life.

“If a select group of people are being discriminated against within a population, it's understandable that their mental wellbeing will be affected. Having clearer pathways into mental health services, and not just the judicial system is key to this.” Uwannah points to the shocking fact that Black British people are 40 per cent more likely than white people to come into contact with mental health services through the criminal justice system than they are through a GP referral.

However, it is important to caveat that there is little research on Black people’s mental health, which as Mwakatuma notes “is both shocking and saddening” reinforcing the current BLM movement, and the need to continue the fight for equality, justice, and representation. 

Nonetheless, once Black people are in the mental care system, it seems support remains insufficient. The UK’s mental health crisis has been well documented, with limited care options in place. My Mental Health Matters Too surveyed 2000 18-25 year olds who identified as Black in London and found that over 41 per cent of them preferred to go to their friends and social groups for mental health support than professional services.

One of the main issues was because of the lack of representation within professional services, which becomes an issue when seeking treatments such as therapy. Therapy is dependent on the subjective experience, with the effectiveness of the therapeutic treatment largely dependent on the relationship between patient and therapist. “The less barriers and differences a therapist has with their client, the more chances of a successful course of therapy.” explains Mwakatuma. This is why Black therapists can be more impactful because they are able to empathise more deeply with the subjective experience of racial trauma.

“A client may want to feel that their feelings about racial discrimination and oppression can be talked about openly within therapy. They may have all sorts of thoughts before even entering the therapy room about what they can and can't say – to a white therapist,” Uwannah notes. “They may feel like they need to protect the therapist from their rage, or not want to make them feel uncomfortable in their position as a white individual and any shame or guilt they may carry for being perceived as the 'oppressor'.”

“Wamithi explains that her experience of therapy changed when she switched from seeing a white therapist to a person of colour.”

Uwannah tells me that while she has not had much experience of race being drawn on in the therapy room, she does find it is a readily discussed topic when she is working with another ethnic minority individual. Wamithi explains that her experience of therapy changed when she switched from seeing a white therapist to a person of colour. While she recognises no therapist can understand everything you go through, her experience has changed for the better. “The fact that I have someone I don’t need to explain my culture to, my race to, my trauma or discrimination down to the matter of technicality means that my sessions can be spent on the real problem – my mental health not my race.”

However, many are optimistic that positive change is ahead. Courtney Carlsson, CEO and founder of Paradym, the world’s first emotional identity app, believes technology can be a fundamental ally in the fight for equality. “Tech is a democratiser, and we need to continue to use it to connect and educate the world.” she explains. “As a mixed race BAME founder, social justice is a core part of what I care about personally. We’re trying to support our user’s mental health, and in order for us to do that properly, the psychological process we guide you through must be relatable. For us, there is no question around ensuring that different stories are heard from all walks of life.”

The Paradym app coaches people into understanding their own emotional identity, guiding people to better empathy, better levels of understanding of different experiences, which Carlsoon believes can help to dismantle the current structures and rebuild new ones. “One of our users recently told me that she had previously been apathetic to the discussion around race, but after using the Paradym app, she better understood the issues and wanted to help enact change. We are part of the movement pushing for equality and change.”

Olanipekun is also ready to create transformative action and wants to be a driver of change. Having worked hard to build a career in advertising he feels it is his duty to utilise his skill set to change the narrative around racism. In the short term, he is also working to support the mental health of people of colour by co-founding Flock Together, a bird-watching club. “For the last decade I’ve used bird watching as a way of escaping the pressures of work and it’s been extremely useful to me personally. Being outdoors and within nature can be meditative and a great chance to gain perspective,” he explains. “I’m not sure why but seeing rare birds gives me immense joy.”

For others who are struggling with trauma during this time, Uwannah suggests time away from triggering material, and finding a way to process feelings (talking to someone, journalling, creative expression), and then redirect that anger or sadness into something constructive. “The process of redirection will feel empowering and give a sense of control. This could be deciding to write a letter to an MP, peacefully protesting, speaking to their employers about internal policies regarding diversity.” Uwannah explains that anything which contributes to a sense of internalised control and positive change can help heal.

Although triggering deep psychological trauma, The BLM movement is energising many to turn anger into action to create positive social change. It is important to note though that it is not the responsibility of those subjected to racial discrimination and impacted by the stigma of mental health to fix themselves. As individuals and members of communities, cultures and society, we all have a part to play in remedying social injustice.