Much has been written about the impact of stop and seaches and racial profiling. That the unequal use of such powers has far reaching devastating consequences on community relations and in particular, on Black and Minority Ethnic Communities (BME) ‘s relationship with the police has become a truism. One aspect of the debate that has received little attention is the potential effects such practices could have on the psychological wellbeing and mental health of communities disproportionally affected by the practice, particularly on their most vulnerable members.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has reported that in some areas Black people are 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched with the overall figures nationally documenting that as a group, they are six times more likely to be subjected to these powers, than their white counterparts. In a recent inspection, the EHRC identified that more than a quarter of all stop and searches carried out under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act in (2013) –that is hundreds of thousands, could have been unlawful. If these findings leave you staggered chances are you’re not a Black inner city young man having to deal with various other social injustices and social stressors (on top of the usual adolescence and young adulthood related stuff) who has been stopped and searched repeatedly for no legitimate reason. Indeed feeling staggered may be a relatively mild emotion for such a person to experience.
Over the years I have come into contact with hundreds of young Black men in community, forensic and clinical settings. I can say with no hesitation, that young Black men’ s experience of the police has been one of the most virulent and recurrent issue I have been presented with. Expectedly, it was often accompanied by feelings of rage, despair, helplessness, distrust and alienation. Feelings strongly associated with psychological distress. The most resilient and resourceful young Black men may easily manage the slight, indignation anddehumanisation of repeated or unlawful stops and searches without being shaken to the core. However, the longer term impact of such experiences particularly if recurrent, do have to be reflected upon. But, how about the others? Those with little or no social support, those with no voice or with a reduced capacity to articulate their experiences?
The level of unmet psychological and mental health needs is high amongst Black men. I once supported a Black man in his thirties within a forensic unit with a string of offences against the police. He recurrently got into conflict with police officers when he was stopped and searched. I also remember an extremely bright nineteen year old Black man who had been convicted of assault for punching the fourth or fifth police officer who had wanted to stop and search him in the same day. These are tragic stories for everyone involved, particularly for the Black men who, shortly after their incarceration became severely distressed and were diagnosed with psychosis.
There is no claim here that the experiences of those two men are representive of those of Black men generally or indeed of those Black men who may have mental health support needs. These stories may be purely anecdotal, nevertheless, it is a fact that Black men are the most likely group to access mental health care through coercive routes and/or through the Criminal Justice System. It is also a fact that there is little (if, any) empirical evidence scrutinizing the impact of such policing practices on the mental health or psychological wellbeing of Black people and specifically, on that of young Black men.
As a Black woman from an inner city background and a psychologist, these issues disturb me profoundly. I personally know many people of colour who have been subjected to unfair, discriminatory and even brutal police treatment. I can recognize the wounds. And worryingly, at present, I am not sure these invisible injuries can be healed within mainstream mental health services if anything, current provisions may well be exacerbating them either as a result of the traumatic pathways to ‘care’ too many black men are forced to take or, because of the types of intervention(s) they receive. It is too early to say whether Theresa May’s projected overhaul of stop and search powers will have an impact on the experience of Black men in our inner city streets or elsewhere. However, I personally think it is an overdue step in the right direction that has the potential to foster better psychological health for this group. As for the hundreds of thousands of young Black men who have already been negatively affected by the abusive use of stop and search powers, one can only hope that services will offer these young people appropriate support and a space to process their experience. And crucially, that the latter will still have enough trust in authority, to accept their offer.
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