New play puts older black women’s hidden mental health centre stage

'Close to the Edge' explores the limited opportunities available to older black women in Britain

THE ALARMING invisibility of older black women experiencing mental illness has inspired Close to the Edge, a new play to be showcased December 3-6 2019 at Thimblemill Library and MAC Birmingham and will tour in 2020.

Written and directed by Viv Manjaro, director of Planet Arts, and co-produced by Sandra Griffiths, co-founder of the Red Earth Collective, Close to the Edge explores the limited opportunities available to older black women in Britain and its detrimental impact on their mental wellbeing.

Through the central character Francesca (played by Sharon Jones), the comedy-drama explores trauma, highlights coping strategies for survival and how to rise above adversity when your mental stability is threatened.

Studies show that post traumatic syndrome is higher in black women, related to the higher levels of sexual assaults that they experience.

However, black women are less likely to report or seek help for assaults or trauma. Also, black women have the highest rates of depression but are least likely to seek and receive treatment, and are more likely to demonstrate maladaptive coping in response to depression, such as self-harm and obesity.

Director and playwright Viv Manjaro said: “Close to the Edge is a play about black women in crisis. Many of us put on the mask of the strong black woman as we step out of the door as a way of holding it together. But behind closed doors some of us fall apart.

“Francesca, the play’s main character, appears to be falling apart but she manages to pull her life back from the brink by developing different coping strategies, which I used when I was close to the edge. Taking off the mask and letting go can be scary, but I want black women to know that there is help out there and that many of us have walked this path – and survived.”

PICTURED: Marverine Cole

Marverine Cole, director of undergraduate journalism courses at Birmingham City University, and winner of the Journalist of the Year Mind Media Awards 2019, said: “As a woman of Caribbean heritage who has experienced periods of depression, I produced and presented a documentary for BBC Radio 4 called Black Girls Don’t Cry about this very topic.

“Black women in Britain are more likely to be diagnosed with common mental health problems than white women and face the ‘strong black woman’ stereotype that prevents some women from seeking support for their mental health. Much of the debate around mental health outcomes focus on black men and leaves the views and experiences of black women invisible.”

Alicia Spence, director of services at the African Caribbean Community Initiative (ACCI), added: “The black mental health agenda has been dominated by the lived experiences of black men for a long time. Yet black women are the foundation of the community, often working as unpaid carers.

“When black women go under, so does the family and the community. We are noticing that older black women in faith communities feel unable to express when they are feeling stressed ,or even grieving, at their church. They believe that they are expected to manage everything and to leave the pain and stress ‘with the Lord‘. Close to the Edge will allow us to have an urgent discussion, which will hopefully lead to action.”

Funded by Arts Council England, Close to the Edge brings together a team of older black women who have experienced emotional distress and draws on their personal experience of self-care and coping strategies.

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