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How the community are helping black women beat depression

THERAPISTS OF COLOUR: Main, therapists from the The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network (BAATN) with Eugene Ellis, centre; inset below, in discussion during a recent event

BLACK WOMEN in the UK face an increased risk of self-harm and depression, according
to research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry and NHS data.

When it comes to addressing the mental health problems of black women and the inadequate treatment they often face, the answers are coming from within the community.

Journalist Marverine Cole is one of the women driving the conversation around black women’s mental health struggles and, importantly, the solutions into the mainstream.
Having recently opened up about her own experience with depression, and giving other black women a platform to talk about their mental health in her documentary Black Girls Don’t Cry, which aired last Friday on BBC Radio 4, Cole is proving black girls do indeed cry.

Like many, the struggle of acknowledging what she was experiencing and concerns over how she would be perceived by others initially prevented Cole from speaking out.


But when she eventually told her friends, she discovered a number of them were taking antidepressants. It took her longer to tell family members, however.

Mental health wasn’t something that they discussed and she only told her mum of her diagnosis the day the documentary aired.

Cole is now urging other black women to speak out about their mental health issues and distance themselves from detrimental stereotypes.

“If we feel we’re not handling things emotionally, we’ve got to speak up. We can’t just keep saying ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine’ because that’s when, sometimes, crises happen,” said Cole.

One of the factors behind this reluctance to express concerns is the ‘strong black woman’ trope.

“The stereotypes are strong, they’re perpetuated in the media – this whole strong black woman thing – we’ve just got to step out of that,” said Cole.

Mainstream mental health services often lack the resources required to provide adequate care to black women. Instead of waiting for the services to wake up to their needs, black healthcare professionals and local groups are setting up their own services – and black women are finding them essential.

Cole, who saw a black female counsellor, said: “People don’t seem to understand us well enough to treat us properly.”

Dr Isha McKenzie-Mavinga, a writer, poet and integrative transcultural psychotherapist and author of Black Issues in the Therapeutic Process, echoed Cole’s feelings on the benefits of meeting with a black therapist.

Dr McKenzie-Mavinga said it is important for black women to have “safe places where we can share our experiences and not feel mad and isolated”.

Her work is an example of just that. She adopts what she terms a “black empathic approach” when a black woman is expressing issues affecting her mental health, creating an environment where her experiences are not denied.

“I believe her for a start and I assist her to assess, specifically, concerns about her identity and how that impacts her coping skills.”

Dr McKenzie-Mavinga said institutional racism was behind the neglect of black women’s mental health, and cited what she called “ances- tral baggage” as a cause for of their mental health conditions. “The first thing I would point to is racism, institutional racism and lack of attention to the mental health of black people,” she said.

While black professionals and people with lived experience of mental health issues agree the NHS needs to do more to acknowledge smaller services that are helping black women, thriving initiatives from black psychologists are leading the way.

Calls from within the community were behind the creation of The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network (BAATN). It is the UK’s largest independent organisation specialising in working psychologically with people from black, African, Caribbean and Asian backgrounds.

It helps connect BAME people with counsellors who share similar ethnic backgrounds and an understanding of the cultural factors which can exacerbate mental health issues.

Eugene Ellis, the founder of BAATN, said: “The gures for BAME people accessing mental health services were pretty poor. The main motivation for me was people asking for therapists of colour.”

Ellis works with those in the psychotherapy and counselling profession to meet the needs of black people. His work involves encouraging people to face racial biases, something he describes as a dif cult task. Funding is also a challenge.

“Trying to create the services ourselves, that’s a big issue due to funding... we’re trying to create safe spaces which do inspire other organisations,” Ellis said.


Nigel Stewart, the founder and director of The Centre for Pan African Thought, hosted the emotional emancipation circles explored by Cole in the documentary. The initiative, in partnership with The Association of Black Therapists and the Community Healing Network, is another example of how black organisations are leading the way when it comes to improving access to tailored tools that tackle mental health issues.

Emotional emancipation circles give black people a space to share their stories and learn strategies to effectively respond to issues that aggravate mental health issues. A programme of the sessions will run for two years at the centre.

Stewart said: “It’s our commitment to the community. The overwhelming response we get just across the board is people are very grateful for having a safe space to express some of the trauma and situations and discrimination they face on a daily basis.”

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