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It's time to prioritise mental health among black women

THE ORGANISERS of a national initiative aimed at encouraging Britons to talk about mental health issues are urging black women who need help to reach out to others if they need support.

Time to Talk Day, which took place yesterday (February 7) is aimed at challenging stigma around mental health. But the organisers say they especially want women from the African Caribbean community to open up and start conversations about the issue.

According to recent statistics from the NHS, black British women are more prone than white women to experience common mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, panic, and obsessive compulsive disorders. Yet, they are less likely to seek help.


Nikki Llewellyn from Time to Change, which is organising Time to Talk Day events, told The Voice: “If talking can prevent problems with mental health I don’t see the point in carrying on this code of silence. It hasn’t helped.

“Being a strong black woman doesn’t mean you have to be silent on mental health. It doesn’t make you weak it makes you what we all are which is human. Holding it in doesn’t help anyone."

Sandra Grif ths, who has worked as a National BME Co-ordinator for Time to Change, said: “Many of the mental health initiatives that focus on the African Caribbean experience still focus on the experiences of men.

“That may be because they are over represented in many of the health and penal institutions. These trends tend to be deemed more newsworthy than the stories of women who come into contact with mental health services in different ways.”

Experts like Grif ths say there are several reasons why women may not open up about mental health issues they may be experiencing. Many of them are linked to the entrenched stigma about mental health issues in the black community.

One often cited reason is the pressure to conform to the stereotype of being the ‘strong black woman’ who keeps the family together. There’s also the fear that their children may be taken away if they seek help for issues such as depression and anxiety. It’s an issue that journalist Marverine Cole raised in her recent BBC radio documentary Black Girls Don’t Cry. She recently opened up about her own experience with depression.

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.


Following the programme’s broadcast last year, she told The Voice: “If we feel we’re not handling things emotion- ally, 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.

“The [strong black woman] stereotypes are strong, they’re perpetuated in the media – this whole strong black woman thing – we’ve just got to step out of that.” Other factors include a distrust of mainstream mental health services, which are often criticised for lacking the resources and insight to be able to adequately help people from black and minority ethnic communities, and a cultural tendency to not talk about personal issues to others.

Also, the central role that the church plays in the black community can mean that many women can feel that their faith relationship is not strong enough if they are struggling with a mental health challenge.

Those in this situation are often told to pray about it or “get over it”. Practitioners and campaigners are concerned that this reluctance to talk about the challenges of mental ill health means that many suffer in silence.

And by the time they eventually do reach out to others or engage with mental health services, their mental health challenges have grown worse. One woman who experienced this was former British army soldier Necola Hall.

After a tough upbringing in Jamaica, she ful lled a dream when she joined the army as a private in 2004. Her army career took in a tour of Iraq during the Second Gulf War.
But after Iraq, the unrelenting challenges of military life took their toll.

Hall struggled with the pressures of her job in logistics and found the experience of taking the exams required as part of her training dif cult. It was to be another five years before she was diagnosed with dyslexia. Life didn’t get any easier when Hall found out she was pregnant.

Sadly, she experienced a miscarriage at 20 weeks. Post-natal depression followed.
“What I do remember are the panic attacks I had after my miscarriage and feeling very down. I began to self-harm and when I went back home I felt as though green gremlin-like creatures were attacking me.”

Also, her religious faith played a major role in her decision to sweep her problems under the carpet. "As a Christian, I felt that if I was depressed, I was spiritu- ally weak. I was also afraid of the stigma in the black community, from my family and friends, if I admitted that I had mental health problems.”


Hall’s problems continued for another seven years, nega- tively affecting her perfor- mance on the job. However, she still felt unable to tell her supervising officers about what she was going through.

They in turn thought she was being lazy and she was threatened with dismissal from the army. Finally, in 2012 she was assigned a mental health nurse and Hall says that move turned her life around.

“It was the first time that I could really just talk to someone without the fear of being judged or stereotyped. It was great to have someone who just believed me. She gave me a number of coping strategies and made interventions on my behalf, which meant that I wasn’t put back into stressful working situations.”

One of those coping strategies was to write a daily journal in which Hall was encouraged to get the feelings she was experiencing down on paper.That process turned into a book, I Was A Soldier, in which she details her struggles with depression and some of the factors that prevented her from talking about it.

According to Griffiths, who now works at Catalyst 4 Change, which supports community organisations and faith groups that have a signi cant African Caribbean mental health service user base, a major stumbling block is the fact that non-medical interventions such as writing and talking therapies, which helped Hall deal with her problems, are seen by mental health professionals as less credible than a more clinical approach.

“We need to have a dialogue about how mental health ser- vices and GP practices can be improved so they can spot problems sooner, tackle fears women may have and encourage them to come forward. There’s no point in encouraging women to come forward if services aren’t really ready to listen to them.”

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