Bringing Black mental health to life in a book

Samara Linton

Dr Samara Linton and Rianna Walcott are Black women who’ve both encountered mental health difficulties and both found, while researching what they were going through, that the mainstream narrative didn’t resonate with their experiences.

So, when a publisher reached out to the pair with the opportunity to put together a book about Black mental health they grabbed it. The book is ‘The Colour of Madness: Mental Health and Race in Technicolour’ and it integrates academic essays based on research theses, but also poetry and artwork.

We caught up with Linton to find out more.

What’s the main idea behind your book?

The idea was to have this collection of experiences for people of colour across the UK that showed how they engaged with the world of mental health, recognising and acknowledging the diversity of those experiences.

Can you tell us more about why you didn’t feel your mental health experiences were reflected in the information you found?

Yes. A very simple example is the statistic we see a lot that one in four people experience a mental health problem. The idea behind that is obviously to destigmatise mental health but for someone like me, it’s actually not true. As a Black person in the UK, I have a much higher than one in four chance of experiencing a mental health problem. Black women are much more likely to have anxiety and depression than white women, for example.

As someone who was training to be a doctor, I also very quickly saw that the treatment people get is very different, depending on who they are.

Again, if you’re Black, you’re more likely to be offered medication than you are to be offered talking therapy. You’re more likely to access mental health services for the first time through the criminal justice system, rather than your GP. So, your experience of the mental health system is completely different, and tied in with other social inequalities.

Why do you think Black people tend to experience more mental health problems?

Initially, researchers thought maybe there was a biological reason for it. Then when they looked at the evidence, they realised that the mental health problems of people coming from the Caribbean, for example, to the UK increased. There’s something about this experience of migration that can really contribute to our mental health problems.

And it makes sense because you’re moving to a new country, you’re losing your support networks, you’re facing microaggressions, but also racism and discrimination.

The more marginalised you are, the higher your mental health risk will be. We see it with people with disabilities, we see it with people from the LGBTQ community.

How do you think Covid has affected the mental health of Black communities in particular?

Covid exacerbated mental health problems. People of colour are more likely to get Covid and are more likely to get severely ill from Covid and more likely to die from it. So in our communities there’s a lot of bereavement and grieving and loss, disproportionately more than in the rest of the UK. Many people are still carrying the trauma of that experience. Even just the push to return to the office unfortunately impacts people of colour more, because on the whole, they feel safer in their home environment than in the office.

What do you think is the biggest learning in your book for the Make A Difference audience?

One of the common threads throughout was this shared sense of feeling ‘othered’. And that’s something that is well known in the workplace too; that people of colour tend to feel disconnected and a sense of not belonging in that culture.

It’s one of the reasons that we’re less likely to want to go back to the office than any other demographic group. In our home space, we can still do our jobs and perform well and meet expectations without having to deal with microaggressions and those the small moments of prejudice that happen in your day to day interactions.

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Can you give me an example of what might be a microagression in the office?

An example is if you’re consistently mixing up the only two South Asian women in your office. You’re mixing up their names and you refuse to learn to pronounce their names properly. Or you might make a comment on the type of food that they eat, if they’re cooking traditional foods. These things aren’t necessarily what we consider discrimination in the big sense because these are small insults that affect your sense of self and your identity. Over time they can build up and cause a sense of disempowerment.

Is there anything else you learnt about the workplace treatment of Black mental health in your research?

One of the things that stood out in terms of the kind of stories people tend to tell about engagement with their managers is this lack of awareness of the disadvantages that they may be facing. And beyond awareness, you need to invest in resources and acknowledge that some particular groups of people might need more investment and more resource.

What do you think of the way companies have engaged with Black Lives Matter?

In the summer of 2020, when companies were very vocal, speaking up and making statements, I remember thinking ‘this is what we’ve been asking for for years and people are hearing us and we’re being seen’. And then fast forward two years, and it kind of feels like it was all for show because little has changed.

Diversity has to be more than a tick box exercise and Black Lives Matter has to be more than a slogan. It’s recognising that there are grave inequalities in our society, and recognising that you have to go out of your way to address them. The workplace can be really pivotal in change.

What else could companies do to better support the mental health of Black people?

A lot of companies turned to their Black employees asking them how to do things better but without offering them any extra resources. They were expected to do inclusion work for free, on top of their day job.

Burnout is so, so common among any employees who wants some sort of equality or inclusivity because it means so much to them, they will want to put in the work. But companies need to recognise what the work entails. They have to carve out time for it.

Also, just because I’m Black doesn’t mean I’m an expert on all things Black! There are experts working in this space – hire consultants, bring in trainers. You can’t rely on people always doing things out of goodwill because you’re putting the burden of addressing inequality on those who are victims of it.

You might also be interested in:

‘It’s time we talked about Black mental health’

Collaboration: one of the hottest topics at MAD World Summit

Profile: Heather Melville OBE CCMI on gender, race and her one message to the wellbeing industry






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