On Monday 10th October, the event ‘A Discussion on Black Mental Health’ was held in the LUU as a part of Black History Month. The Gryphon speaks to Melissa Owusu, education officer at LUU and organizer of the event, in order to gain a greater understanding about mental health issues in the black community.
When it comes to mental health in the black community, there are some troubling figures. Statistics show that a British black person is five times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than the rest of the population. Also, black people are 44% more likely to be diagnosed with a psychotic illness than their white people, more likely to be sectioned under mental health, three times more likely to end up in a UK mental hospital and are 50% more likely to be put in seclusion in the mental health care system.
Worrying mental health tendencies cannot be denied, and this has led people to take action in the black community. Four experts on the topic, Allison Lowe, Jordan Stephens, Leona Nichole Black and Rameri Moukam discussed the current issues and battles revolving black mental health in Leeds at the Monday debate. The discussion was lively and informative, with Melissa Owusu describing it as “one of the best events” she has ever attended and organised at Leeds during Black History month: “The even created a space where voices of black people were centralized. My other event, ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’, was separated from us somehow – the curriculum is the curriculum – it’s set for us. Mental health is something that happens within us, and there has never been a space where we could talk about it and hear other people’s experiences of it as well.’’
At the discussion it was addressed how the norm for black people has almost gone from “oppression to depression” in our current system. It was mentioned how institutions structurally work against black individuals, and how challenging it can be to try to “stay sane in a mad system”. Amongst the many things covered on the event night, one of the longest panel debates was on the “trauma in genetics” theory. The mentioned theory looks at how traumas can be genetically transferred from one generation to the next, and has its origin in an analysis of the Jewish diaspora during World War II. At the event, the theory was mentioned in relation to previous slavery of black people and how such a terrible atrocity may have affected mental health prospects on generational levels.
Though the theory is ground-breaking in the medical world, member of the panel Allison Lowe pointed out that “the theory shouldn’t be an excuse to victimize. When it comes to mental health, it is first an foremost important to know your personal history, and to know that you have the power to change from within.” When asking Owusu about the genetics theory, she, similarly, said: “I know nothing about genetics but I can see how it could be possible. Looking at other structures when it comes to mental health, especially history, is just as important though. For instance, it is often forgotten that white privilege is the ability to look up things such as ancestry. In this case, African-Americans are completely displaced. They have very limited to no knowledge of their history pre slavery – that is such a problem, and does define how they interact with the society and community that they’re within: because the only history they really know is a terrible one. This understanding of course affects their mental health as a group as well.”
It seems that mental health is an issue in the black community for many reasons. However, there is no doubt that there are many issues that haven’t being addressed enough. At the event it was discussed how reactions to black mental health problems also create a fear to talk about it. It was pointed out how, often, when a black person asks for help with mental health issues, the police shows up at the door instead of a nurse. The fear of becoming criminalized or stigmatized for a mental disease is another serious issue that can discourage or scare people from assessing and seeking applicable help.
There is more to the mental health debate than just talking about psychology though. It is a part of a bigger movement that focuses on black identities, and giving black people a space where they feel prioritized. When asking Owusu about the Black Lives Matters movement, it became clear that there is often confusion related to its message “Many people have misconceptions about the Black Lives Matter movement – they think it only focuses on the police killings of black men, but the concept was actually written up by 3 black women.
“It is also often thought that it somehow undermines and ignores other people’s struggles in society because it focuses on black people. Like with everything, people twist and reconstitute it to benefit their own means and views of the world.”
Owusu’s comment additionally supports panel member Jordan Stephens’ statement about the misunderstanding of the movement: “Black lives matter on their own – and that doesn’t mean that white lives don’t matter.”
Further discussion about the Black Lives Matters movement made Owusu speak about racism, and about how to speak up if you aren’t black: “One of the key things to do is listen. Make sure that you’re in situations where you get insights to what the black community thinks. If you have friends that don’t understand the movement – drag them along to events where they can hear from the mouths of people that experience racism first-hand.” Owusu additionally pointed out how important it is to understand your own history in order to tackle racism: “It’s not easy, but it’s possible- understand your privilege by learning about the hierarchy revolving skin tones, and reading about your own history. Everybody should put in the time and energy to do so. That’s crucial in order to speak up about racism.”
Towards the end, Owusu talked about how solving the issues with black mental health won’t be found solely in the world of psychology. Inequalities are kept alive and reproduced through much bigger forces: “It is not just psychology that needs to change, but society. Looking at psychology in and within itself wouldn’t solve anything. There needs to be a shift in people’s perceptions and understandings of race. We all experience life differently, every single moment of it. Therefore, understanding the history that built our current system is massively important. I don’t think that people really conceptualize what slavery is or what colonialism is; we’re simply not taught to do so. We don’t understand how the deep systemic roots of racism shape all the systems in our modern world. People need to learn to be more culturally competent: by this I don’t mean understanding what black people do, but understanding how your own history has impacted someone else’s.” It is clear that black mental health issues are just a part of a problematic fragment of the whole racist framework that appears in the world today. But it is still important to talk about and crucial to attempt to understand – regardless of skin colour.