Black minds matter: How the mental health system is failing black communities

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Spurred on by the tragic death of George Floyd, the latest in a long line of black victims to die at the hand of police brutality in the US, Black Lives Matter has been marching around the globe in the hope of reprogramming the way we think about race. As well as seeking justice, the movement has been shining a light on how corrupt law enforcement has historically targeted African Americans, condemning slavery and then exploiting loopholes in the legal system instead – including a clause in the 13th Amendment itself – to strip them of their freedom and dignity in less overt ways. However, as protests break out all over the world in this universal struggle for civil rights, it has become clear that it is not only physical violence that threatens black lives, but also the psychological conflict that stems from institutional racism.

Black Lives Matter highlights the fundamental importance of both feeling safe within a wider society and feeling secure within oneself. The UK may not have the same prison rates, but our discriminatory mental health practice is also guilty of incarcerating people of colour, with black men in the UK being four times more likely to be sectioned under an outdated Mental Health Act still in need of reform. And before this biased process of institutionalisation even comes into play, preferential treatment is given to white privileged white communities, for whom support is often more readily available.

According to Mind, evidence shows that there is a much greater likelihood of young black men in this country being diagnosed with severe mental health problems; the joint influence of prejudice, inequality, cultural barriers and stigmas make them far more vulnerable, and yet preventative measures and resources are often inaccessible or inadequate in catering to the specific concerns of minority communities. Studies show that the ethnicity of therapists can have an impact on the efficacy of treatment, so the noticeable lack of representation in the health service (when you don’t factor in independent organisations providing crucial online resources) can have further adverse effects.

Indeed, Black Lives Matter in itself has been a hugely traumatic time, full of disturbing and graphic reminders of brutality against the black community. This means that right now, these underserved communities are in even more need of support. Journalist Leah Sinclair expresses the need for escapism as a black woman bearing daily witness to the images of oppression spreading in the news and on social media. Increased exposure to this kind of content takes its toll: just as our increased exposure to news of the Covid-19 pandemic, seeing deaths rack up in devastating numbers, has leaked vicariously into our lives, this all-consuming pandemic of racism and violence is taking a toll on black communities the world around.

Black lives matter, as do black dreams and black minds. Such is the power of the movement that even the most high-profile figures are beginning to weigh in on the situation: the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have declared their support, assuring black communities that their mental health organisation Heads Together is behind them. But this is not a problem that will be solved with a few statements from far-removed (though well-meaning) royals; it’s a rot in the foundations of our system that requires an upheaval in the way we approach mental health.

Rosamund Kelby

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