Recently I was invited to a wonderful mental health seminar by an organisation called NOUS whose mandate is to reach out to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups (BAME).
There was a good mix of people in the conference. Professionals as well as non professionals.
It was interesting the questions that were raised…
One professional who worked with the mentally ill asked a rhetorical question as to why was it that if two people came into a mental hospital with similar symptoms, one being white while the other being a black man, that the white patient would be more likely to be offered other therapies outside medication. On the other hand, the black man would not only be put on drugs, but at very high dosages.
There were heated discussions of minorities being marginalized and discriminated even in the mental health services, services which are there to protect the vulnerable.
The statistics also showed a very concerning disparity between minorities and whites in admissions, diagnosis, being sectioned and so on.
There were hard figure facts to support the hypothesis that minorities were just not fairly treated…and small wonder there were higher incidences of mental illness among them…and also less chances of recovery.
Is there a strong point to support all the evidence presented? Are minority groups really a ‘crazy bunch’ of people? Is that how society see minority groups? Are minority groups more prone to mental illness? More vulnerable even? Or are minority groups just victims of themselves?
Of course, there were possible reasons why it may seem that life is not fair to minority groups. Yes, mama told us when we were kids that life is not fair, but are we really tipping the scales of mental illness?
There are of course instances culturally where minority groups were more likely to be misunderstood. And that is my high point of discussion today.
For example, among Africans, we do know that Africans are animated folks. When Africans talk, you know they are talking. There is no such thing as whispering among Africans. Whether it is 1 am in the morning or 3 pm in the middle of the day, the hour of the day has no effect on voice volume. Africans are generally loud talkers.
Then, Africans are energetic talkers too. The waving of hands, banging furniture to emphasize a point, raucous laughter followed by some aerobic twirl, none of these things are alien to Africans whether home or abroad. It is bone of our bones, flesh of our flesh. Africans make their presence felt.
To an onlooker however, such wild gesticulations and raised voices can seem somewhat aggressive or intimidating, excessive or plain weird, especially to the stiff upper lip Brits wondering what the whole theatrics is about.
Then goodness gracious, if there was an argument between two Africans. To an onlooker once again, it would seem as if Hitler has resurrected and started World War III.
Then, lets take it a notch further. Sadly, there has been a sudden bereavement. The rib cracking wailing and soul wrenching weeping would almost re-awaken Lazarus once again from his tomb. It would be noted ‘Africans wept’ if it were a modern Biblical story!
But the weeping just would not stop there. The grieving family concerned would certainly behave momentarily as someone deranged. Perhaps adorned with half undone cornrows if the news greeted them during a hair session.
Half cornrows, to a fellow African, needs no further explanation. But to other hair textures, ‘hair standing on end’, spells a definite warning sign of mental malaise.
The natural gesticulations would be even more energetic, and so on.
Then there would be the phrases like ‘It is an attack’. Or ‘arrow from village’. Or ‘witchcraft’.
To a Caucasian, any of those three statements are totally nonsensical. How does someone unfortunately losing their life in an accident and this wonder arrow that has been thrust thousands of miles away, fit in the equation? You are talking gibberish, in their books. They probably think you have definitely gone bonkers. If there was any doubt before, this talk has certainly nailed that you have flipped!
Then if you were a tongue speaking Christian, this is pushing the bar a bit. For one thing, to the hearer, heavenly language does not seem to have worldly grammatical rules. And then the fact that you are praying in a ‘language’ that even YOU can’t interpret, certainly makes you a high contender mental admission.
No one needs to spell out, that lack of understanding cultural differences can make any of the above seem plain weird in its mildest form. Africans women can ‘seem’ intimidating, angry… misunderstood. African men can ‘seem’ aggressive… grossly misunderstood .
Take the other day, I was driving, and I could see this large black lady giving probably her skinny husband or partner the beating of his life. She was clearly very angry over something. It looked hilarious but not very threatening as the man seemed to be taking it in his stride, you know ‘taking it as a black man’.
Not threatening, but then that is from someone who understands hell hath no fury as a black woman scorned. However to someone else, she is without a doubt a mad black woman on rampage!
One thing, when all is said and done, as Africans, there needs to be a balance way of thinking even where there seems to be unfairness or even discrimination. As Africans, we cannot always hold up the race card. As one of the African professionals present said at the conference, they had been accused of being racist even though she was black herself!
No doubt, there are real issues. My husband Chuck may himself had been misdiagnosed many years ago. Fainting in an airport and ending up in a mental hospital definitely beggars belief and certainly opens up a whole can of worms.
Thankfully Chuck is not bitter. Thankfully he has a clean bill of health today after 18 long years carrying with him most likely the wrong label all this time.
I once heard of an African lady who had been put on psychiatric drugs after the sudden death of her husband in the 1960s. She never saw a psychiatrist at the time she was put on these medications nor ever saw one throughout her life. Unfortunately, as her body developed a dependency on the drugs, it has become a lifetime sentence. She has never been able to come off these drugs.
However, we can celebrate that compared to these ‘horror’ stories, many of these kind of issues have been addressed and come a long way in modern Britain today. As minorities, there is no denying that there is still a long way to go in getting the balance right.
I am not advocating that Africans keep quiet where there instances of injustice or discrimination. But neither am I advocating that Africans and minorities become unhealthily oversensitive either.
Granted, Africans are emotional beings, but with something emotive as mental illness, let us get the points across clearly…and perhaps with a stiff upper lip too. Then we can get our voices heard the loudest.