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Tackling mental health

SPEAKER: Dr Martin Glynn took part in a panel discussion

A RALLYING cry for black communities to play a greater part in their own wellbeing and push for improvement was made at a mental health conference in Birmingham last weekend.

Self-reliance and self-determination were themes that echoed throughout Stepping Out for Our Community, in which the harsh realities of fifty-plus years of failed policies and overlooked recommendations were brought into sharp focus by eminent speakers with tragic personal accounts alongside professional experience of mental illness.

Joanna Bennett, a professor of mental health with a 30- year history of campaigning for change in the UK and the Caribbean, talked to delegates at The H Suite conference in the Edgbaston area of the city through reports, enquiries and legislation dating back to the 1960s, en route to a damning conclusion: their failure to stem the tide of people of Af- rican and Caribbean heritage being subject to more control, restraint and resuscitation techniques and prescribed stronger medication.

Prof Bennett also shared the story of how in October 1998 her brother David ‘Rocky’ Bennett died after being restrained face down for 28 minutes by five nurses in the medium se- cure unit he was staying in to receive treatment. “The same issues about the overuse of restraint and resuscitation came up when I read the report into my brother’s death. I am determined to fight to stop these things happening.”

Countering a long-held explanation for black people’s prevalence in the system, she continued: “We don’t know how smoking cannabis interacts with the brain. It is being set up to treat mental conditions in Jamaica. How can this be if cannabis itself is making us mad?”

CONCERN

Superintendent Sean Russell, West Midlands Police’s lead for mental health, spoke of his work with community activists like the event organisers and speakers to improve conditions: “The way forward is not so much about going to the Government for help: when I was young, I knew my neighbours and they looked out for me and vice versa. We must get back to that.

Tippa Naphtali spoke of his determination to build a legacy to his cousin, Mikey Powell, who had mental health issues and died in police custody in Birmingham in 2003. He is adding Catalyst 4 Change (C4C), a membership-based social enterprise to his roster of achievements in the 40 years since he set up a community project in nearby Handsworth shortly after leaving school.
“I was able to do this as I had support from others in our community. We have more power than we think,” he said.

C4C will nurture developing community organisations and fund culturally-aware research - it was the driving force behind the implementation of Street Triage, an initiative that will see police officers joined by paramedics and qualified practitioners to prevent people with mental health issues being put in custody.

TESTIMONY

Lambeth Councillor, Jackie Dyer MBE, vice chair of the NHS England’s mental health task force, spoke about the pain of having siblings and a mother with mental health issues. Emphasising the importance of early diagnoses, she called on delegates to break taboos in their families, to get involved in mental health reviews and influence the system.

The conference also included a panel discussion between Prof Bennett, Naphtali, Supt. Russell, criminologist Dr Mar- tin Glynn and long-serving practitioner and campaigner Joyce Fletcher, chaired by the New Testament Church of God’s (NTCoG) Bishop Derek Webley. The event featured small group workshops and the showing of ’From NOYA’ - a poignant short drama by local filmmaker Daniel Anderson about a young black woman plagued by suicidal thoughts.

The conference was present- ed by the 10-woman collective behind the NTCoG’s Villa Cross Soup Kitchen and the Destiny Discipleship Ministries, and a follow-up event is in planning.

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