Politics, mental health and the Black community: The cost of disengagement

There are some things that too many Black people would rather not talk or think about, it seems.  Perhaps because some of us have come to think they do not concern us directly.  Mental health may be one of those things. Politics may be another. While the more socially aware amongst us may know of the stark inequalities within the mental health system, many of us would stop short of looking at members of our own families as potential mental health service users. We are not quite there yet, as a community (like most others).  Though we have seen and can now even possibly recognise some of the unmistakable side effects of some psychotropic medication on some of our community members and; have also seen some of our most distressed people walk around, often aimlessly, in our streets, markets and/or shops, many of us have somehow managed to convince ourselves that ‘those people’ could not be a member of our family and could certainly not be us. Disengaging from their distress and thus distancing ourselves from the experiences that can precipitate their crises.

The truth is though, to some of us ‘those people’ are our parents, our sons, our daughters our neighbours, our friends. Or they are us. Members of the Black community who may have felt lost, wounded or alienated and who may have followed the most coercive or adverse routes into the mental health system.  People who may be going through the revolving door of psychiatric hospitalisation and community discharge or been on the criminal justice-system-to-mental-health-hospital pipeline. The reality is of course that everyone is vulnerable, under the ‘right’ conditions, to experiencing emotional distress and let’s be real; Black people are not exactly spared by trauma and adversity.  We are, thus, all concerned.  So, while I would not argue that stigma is higher in the Black community in comparison to other ethnic groups and there certainly is very little evidence of that, its impact may well be more significant.  At the risk of replaying a record that is now a few decades old, let us remind ourselves of where we are in terms of mental health services use.

Of the on-going race inequalities within the system.  Of the excessive use of involuntary detention and persistently higher rates of acute ‘mental illness’ diagnoses within African and African Caribbean communities. Of the Black lives who were taken within systems meant to care for them. Of the fact that when we access mental health services it is all too often via the criminal justice system or with police involvement.  Of the continuing invisibility of the impact of the racism we face at both institutional and individual level and its impact on our psychological functioning, amongst other race-based inequities…The message to take home is quite clear.  As Black persons in the UK, we are more likely to experience emotional distress yet less likely for this distress to be ‘treated’ psychologically or with therapy and more likely to end up detained on psychiatric wards and in prisons, if we become emotionally distressed, we are more likely to be forced to undergo psychiatric ‘treatments’.

In a nutshell, we may be more affected by the most traumatic end of mental health services. And what do we do, still too often?  We disengage from these issues. In the same way that many disengage from politics. Unsurprisingly disengagement within mental health systems likely fuels more coercion and thus the cycle continues. According to The Institute of Public Policy Research, only 20% of people from Black and minority-ethnic communities are registered to vote, almost three times less than our white-British counterparts. Here too, many of us don’t feel directly affected or represented. Or perhaps we feel that our experiences, struggles and achievements are constantly erased by a political class that often seems intent on obsessing over immigration. Yet, in the same way that mental health structures affect us arguably more violently than any other group, so do many political decisions.

And again, in the same way that disengagement from mental health issues or services contributes to inappropriate ‘treatments’ or negative experiences for too many of us, disengagement from politics and political affairs may well affect our lives more adversely than average. Cuts to mental health services for example, are bad news for everyone; they are particularly so for the most disadvantaged in society, as is the disappearance of funding streams for many third sector organisations and community groups which for many years have provided a lifeline to the most vulnerable amongst us. Those who have often been too traumatised by institutions or alienated from society to seek mental health support from statutory services. We have watched this happen before our very eyes and many have continued to feel not directly affected. It is time we ended these fallacies. It is simply not possible not to be affected by politics in the same way that it is impossible not to be affected by mental health.

Mental health and politics are intrinsically intertwined in complex ways.  For example, getting engaged in politics can enable us to challenge the social norms that do us harm, to scrutinise the allocation of opportunities and social resources which promote our wellbeing, to hold systems to account for the treatment of our most vulnerable at home and abroad.  It helps us keep power and the elite in check in relation to the decisions they make at the top of their ivory towers.  Clearly the political system often, is not effective.  All systems are fallible. However, we do not fix a faulty piece of machinery by walking away from it.  There is a strong link between voting and emotional wellbeing. Not only is political engagement a marker of social inclusion, it may well be a powerful antidote to helplessness, despair and marginalisation, experiences too common within our communities and which fuel our high rates of psychological distress. In a nutshell disengagement, irrespective of the valid reasons which may lie at its core, does nothing for the Black community but help keep intact a status quo that, too often, does us violence socially and psychologically.

Want to learn more?

Black Mental Health UK has compiled a range of reports on race inequalities within both criminal justice and mental health systems, to access them (Click here)

To access The Poverty Site – A UK site for statistics on poverty and social exclusion (click here)

Thank you for reading.

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.

This piece was published on Operation Black Vote (OBV) on July 12h 2015. OBV is a non-partisan political campaign aiming to empower racialised groups to vote, present politicians with the reality of what it means to be belong to a minority group in Britain and to compel them to address racial inequality.

All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections.  If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.

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