Is Racism a contributor to Black People’s Mental Health

Does Racism make Black people “Mad”…. and is this madness internalised or acted out or both….that is the question!

16% of restricted patients in hospital are Black or Black British despite only making up 3% of the general population…..that cannot be good! Most restricted patients are transfers from prison, and we know that people from minority ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in the prison population. 13% of people in prison are Black or Black British and consequently Black or Black British people are more likely to be detained under mental health legislation and we are only too familiar with the trauma that Black people are left with when they have a racist encounter with the police and the recent case of Bianca Williams and Ricardo Dos Santos bears testimony to this.

Yes, I know that we cannot attribute all our present difficulties with matters of the past, but we cannot ignore that history despite the part that some of us have played in some of the questionable aspects of that history. Nonetheless, the legacy of colonialism has impacted on how the West have tried to rationalise their treatment of Black people in the colonies as a way of diminishing their culpability in the treatments meted out. This has led to the characterising of Black people as less than human, fuelling subsequent racist ideologies and further contributing to Black people’s feelings of low self-worth.

But let’s go back in time for a moment. Some of you may not be familiar with a medical diagnosis called “Drapetomania”. Let me explain, in 1851 an American physician called Samuel Cartwright hypothesised that this was a major cause for enslaved Africans fleeing captivity; as he believed that the slaves should be happy with their condition and any desire to leave was a form of mental illness. This pseudoscience has clearly been debunked but are there strains of that condition still in play in society today particularly when we are too comfortable with our reluctance to acknowledge and respond to levels of Racism that we silently endure. Yes, we can take the slave out of the plantation but in the words of Bob Marley we still have much to do to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.

So, some people will argue as to what has that got to do with the here and now. The point is whether we come from different political positions we cannot deny that Racism is a factor in society today but how far it impacts on our condition is something that is up for debate. Now …the thing is whether we choose to admit it or not Racism has touched us in ways that are so deep that sometimes we are completely unaware. This can manifest itself in lower self-worth and some of us have been so conditioned by the western culture imposed in the colonies where our families came from that we actually believe that White Europeans are more skilled and sophisticated than we are which can manifest itself in not supporting our Black brothers and sisters and leads us to being more comfortable in supporting any other organisation instead of a Black organisation.

When Black people first came to the UK in any substantial numbers in the 50s/60s; the men came first and they came with expectations that were never going to be realised. Many were shamefully treated, physically and mentally abused, emasculated, and subjected to Stop & Search and this has , in many instances impacted on their mental health well-being. Many of these early migrants came with skills that were very often unrecognised and had to settle for jobs well beneath their capabilities which further compounded their condition. The question we must ask ourselves is whether the Racism experienced was and is a contributor to Mental Illness is and if so whether that is recognised….and furthermore whether our mental health services take that on board. Notwithstanding Racism how are other cultural factors included when determining cause and remedy. Over the last few decades some efforts were made to ameliorate these circumstances and in Southampton the James Wiltshire Trust and Mind tried to develop some strategies but unfortunately, they were not sustainable. High profile cases such as deaths in police custody, of Kingsley Burell-Brown and Sean Rigg who both died of cardiac arrest having been dubbed as “mentally ill”, Olaseni Lewis, Colin Holt, Mikey Powell, Roger Sylvester, and others.

It is not unlikely that many Black families in Southampton and the region have at least one person in their family who has a mental health condition, of differing degrees, and the reality is that there is little expertise in the health systems that fully appreciates social and cultural issues that may impact on the condition of that individual; notwithstanding varying levels of Racism that the individual may have encountered. These levels of Racism can include micro aggressions, physical and mental acts of racial discrimination, racial attacks, and threats. I am not suggesting that these conditions drive us to a state of madness, but I am saying that we should not be trying so hard to deny the well documented instances of differential treatment has left its mark.

Recent research has suggested that there is a tendency to make associations about bad things with someone with a darker skin and the demonization of Black men has created a new breed of Black men who are reticent about recognising this condition and make every effort in offering themselves up as a very decent alternative that have decided to ignore the “psychobabble” of those who, in their view, are happy to play the so called “The Race Card”.

We have had Workshops, conferences, reports, seminars, and a variety of other examinations on this issue but these are very often substitutes for actually implementing any real change. However, in many of these scenarios Racism is rarely calculated to be an ingredient to mental illness amongst some Black people, and instead these have been rationalised as some aberration in our genetic make-up. But for this to be taken seriously more Black people must take ownership of that condition…… and that is a bitter pill to swallow. Let us not deny the fact that, as Black people, our interaction with the West has left deep traumas that we must find the confidence to face.

“Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner.”

Don John