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Exhaustion. If one word has echoed around our social media feeds these past few weeks, it’s this one. Black people are tired: tired of justifying how we feel, as if 400 years of oppression were not enough to explain it; tired of showing we are human beings with emotions; and tired of proving how valuable our lives are. And this exhaustion goes beyond mere fatigue. It’s a mental health issue.
Black Lives Matter has opened unhealed intergenerational wounds from centuries of trauma, oppression, anger and humiliation. This has been very much evident in the protests that have spread across all 50 US states – and the world – since the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, in what has become the biggest civil rights movement in history.
Racism is a disease that can kill a human being, directly, as we have seen in these horrific cases of police brutality, or indirectly, in its lifelong impact on our physical and mental health. The rage we’re seeing now has been burning for a long time – anger at why systemic racism continues to the present day.
Barack Obama recently joined civil rights icon John Lewis and lawyer Bryan Stevenson to address mental wellbeing during a pandemic – of racism. The former US president said of the Black community: “We inherited extraordinary strengths, but we have also inherited trauma.”
So, how do we protect Black minds as we strive to protect Black lives?
Mental health and prejudice
It’s important to understand how white supremacy has fundamentally harmed Black people’s psyche. Black people face racial prejudice no matter where in the world they are. As a Black person, hypervigilance is always on your mind –a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder that goes largely undiagnosed in Black people due to failures in mental health services.
In the UK, Black people are more likely to suffer with severe mental health issues than any other race and are also more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. According to NHS Digital data, Black people have a detention rate of 306.8 per 100,000 in England (2018-2019) – more than four times higher than white people, where the rate is 72.9 per 100,000.
Black people are also more likely to receive Community Treatment Orders – a legal order that requires a person to accept mental health treatment, including taking medication and therapy. “Racial disparity in the use of the Act is an ongoing injustice,” says Vicky Nash, head of policy and campaigns at Mind.
At the same time, Black and minority therapists are underrepresented in mental health services and research has shown that if a Black person’s experience does not resonate with a white therapist, it can often lead to misdiagnosis.
Longstanding inequalities have a weathering effect on wellbeing and mental health, which is toxic to the body’s stress response system, spiking up further health issues. Black women are more prone to anxiety, depression, panic attacks and obsessive compulsive disorders, NHS data shows.
Conditions such as diabetes and high-blood pressure are more prevalent in Black communities than any other race group and Black people are also dying disproportionately during the Covid-19 crisis, as belatedly confirmed by Public Health England.
All these factors explain the vicious cycle a Black person can be stuck in: traumatised by racism, but facing mental health stigma; impacted by social and economic inequalities, but also by implicit biases in healthcare and justice.
Racism as a daily reality
As a Danish-British woman of Somali origin, and also Muslim, I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere. Being a woman is difficult enough without also being a Black woman and a Muslim woman.
I feel like I’ve always had to prove my worth in white spaces, fighting micro-aggressions like “you’re so articulate,” which sounds like a compliment but is actually backhanded. Are Black people not articulate?
I’ve also suffered and continue to suffer from the ‘superwoman syndrome’ – not realising this persona is a means of survival linked to a wider socio-historical context in which Black women could never display signs of weakness. This has contributed to my stress and anxiety levels, trying to be as ‘perfect’ as possible just to prove that I am worthy – a narrative that I need to dismantle.
Being a Black person is often described as being in ‘fight or flight’ mode, and honestly, that is the best way to explain it. Nor am I alone in how I feel. I have been collecting the voices of Black people across the UK, Europe and the US, asking them how racism has affected their mental health and wellbeing.
“I’m tired and drained, constantly having to provide for myself in an industry and in a company among very few Black people and a sea of white faces,” said one 25-year-old PR executive from London. “It’s tiring to put up a front everyday and dismiss micro-aggressive comments, to always be smiling and just get on with it during a fight for freedom. No one understands, they don’t understand.”
“The looks, the stares, the judgement and the questions alienate you from your inner being.”
Racism in the workplace ranges from the discreet to the blatant, a 24-year-old woman who works in marketing told me. “The looks, the stares, the judgement and the questions alienate you from your inner being. I found myself constantly adapting my language and behaviour to fit in with a group of people that wouldn’t look twice at me outside of work,” she says.
“Being told that my natural hairstyle resembled someone that had ‘put their hand in a plug socket’ or seeing my non-Black friends enter high paying jobs right after graduation, while I struggled, jobless, for six months was just the beginning. Despite being told that ‘by applying yourself at school and university you would achieve’, being a young, Black, queer woman entails transgressing barriers that the average white woman would never have to consider.”
A 32-year-old teacher from New York summed it up: “I constantly have to fight and feeling like you’re not heard is exhausting… it tricks you into thinking you don’t matter. We are more valuable than they treat us.”
Be Kind To Yourself
Fighting racism is not an overnight job. While we are collectively engrossed in the fight against injustice, it’s important to not forget about your own personal wellbeing while supporting the cause. Look after yourself first:
Talk about your feelings and offload emotional baggage
Take regular breaks from social media
Take time to reflect, meditate and journal
Keep active throughout the day and eat well
Watch light-hearted shows/movies and take your mind off the news
Ask for help when you need it – vulnerability is not a weakness.
Therapy for Black Girls was set up by Black women for Black women.
Mind′s Young Black men programme is designed to look after the mental health of Black men and is open to those from 11 to 30 years-old.
The Siwe Project is an international charity promoting mental health awareness in the global Black community.
Black Men Speak is a speakers bureau where African American men educate others outside their race about mental health issues.
Melanin & Mental Health was founded by two Black women therapists to promote mental and emotional healing in Black and Latinx communities.
Open Path Collective seeks a safe place for marginalised people to receive therapy and ease the financial burden that comes with it.
How To Support Others
As a trained Mental Health First Aider in the workplace, I recognise the impact that systemic racism can have on a person’s wellbeing and the repercussions it can have if not addressed. Here is what you can do to help from today:
Actively listen to the experiences that Black people face.
Employ non-judgemental listening skills and do not engage in racial gaslighting while doing so.
Discuss racism even if it’s awkward for you. It’s a privilege to learn about racism, rather than experience it on a daily basis.
Ask questions and engage in the conversation.
Donate If You Are Able
These are just some of the UK organisations supporting Black people’s mental health.
Black Minds Matter is hoping to raise £300,000 to connect Black people in the UK to Black therapists. Help it surpass its goal.
Black Girls Camping Trip creates retreats for Black women in the UK and while it has met its crowdfunding target, it is still open for donations.
Black Lives Matter (UK) is a fundraiser organised by Black activists and organisers from the UK to support Black communities in the UK.
You will find further causes, petitions and ways to show up and take action among these resources for how to support Black British people right now.
Diversify your circle and get to know more people outside of your own race.
Reach out to a friend who you know might be affected by recent protests.
If you have Black co-workers, check in on them.
Challenge your own beliefs, prejudice and unconscious biases.
Take charge of your own learning and be an active citizen of the world.
Continue to re-educate yourself and share your knowledge with members of your own household, family, and friends.
Use your talents, whether than be writing, speaking, filming or other creative endeavours, to raise awareness.
Finally, use your white privilege to always speak up when you witness an injustice in this world – don’t be neutral.
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).