Mental health - the words that can conjure up images of unhinged, violent and scary individuals that should be avoided at all costs for your own personal safety. The words that rarely have positivity linked to them, the words that can induce fear, stigma and shame, none more so than within the black community.
As somebody that is of mixed race that has suffered from bouts of anxiety, panic disorder and depression throughout my life, and as somebody that has embarked on a degree in forensic psychology, when I was offered the opportunity to take a two-day mental health first aid course for adults, I jumped at the chance. In fact, I was ecstatic and hoped I would be able to find child care and manage the early long-distance commute. I did and I am so grateful for the knowledge I was bestowed and feel privileged to have the qualification I walked away with.
As a group of keen learners, we were fortunate to have a wonderful facilitator called Lynette who is a humanistic councillor working for MIND in Haringey. Lynette genuinely cared for the people that she came into contact with professionally, and if you weren't passionate about mental health prior to meeting Lynette and taking part in the course, you definitely were by the time you left the building.
In fact, nothing else felt more important as the stories from the course of adults and children's battles with mental illness whirled around my mind, imagining the silent and lonely mental torture of wonderful human beings was overwhelming. I found out that prior to the pandemic 1 in 4 of us would, at some time, experience mental health challenges. Now it is more likely 1 in 2, and that the average age of diagnosis of a severe mental illness in young males is 16. Mental illness does not discriminate and it can happen to anyone - your family and friends, even you at any time, but armed with knowledge it is something that can be managed and a productive life lived.
Attending the course made me want to be a part of the movement for change and be proactive in working towards challenging societies negative views and the myths associated with mental health, because often it is those outdated myths and stigmas that deter people from seeking therapeutic and/or medical advice or confiding in those closest to them. Too often, it is because of fear of judgment, looking weak or being told they are cursed, an assumption sometimes made within the black community. The impact of not seeking medical advice often means that the person’s mental health deteriorates as a result and that sometimes can lead to tragic, irreversible consequences.
So, I implore you to check in on those you have not seen for a while, even if it is somebody you have met on social media and they have ceased posting after being a prolific poster, your neighbour - if something seems out of character then check in and just let them know you are there for them and just listen, without judgement. You could be the one-person that makes the difference in somebody's life when they need it the most. Don’t just assume they're grumpy, miserable, acting weird and whatever you do please refrain from saying ‘chin up, it might never happen’ or other unhelpful cliché sayings.
Don’t avoid people who display symptoms of mental illness like they did in the days of those with leprosy, instead empathise and advise them to seek medical help. Do you know that 75% of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia go on to lead healthy and productive lives? Sadly, 10% complete suicide within the first year of diagnosis and that is mainly due to fear of their life never being the same again - if only they had known about the 75%. It is definitely worth gaining and understanding an awareness of mental health, sharing the knowledge, because it can give hope to those who are struggling.
by Kerry-Jane Bunting