Dealing with my mental health whilst being young and Black
29 October 2021
By Rahma Duale
Experiencing racism makes you more likely to develop common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. The Covid period has disproportionately affected young people in accessing education and employment, and has exacerbated mental ill health amongst racialised and minority groups.
The question that keeps coming to mind is, how can we trust mental health services when they reflect the same institutions that damaged our mental health to begin with?
Schools, for instance, have an immense responsibility to protect, equip and support young people on their journey into adulthood. When they fail to do so, this can negatively affect young people’s mental health and progression. The majority (70%) of young people who experienced racism in school said that the experience had impacted their wellbeing.
how can we trust mental health services when they reflect the same institutions that damaged our mental health to begin with?
Children cannot and should not have to learn in spaces where they feel stigmatised and unhappy. The school curriculum does not effectively represent the diversity of contemporary society or our country’s colonial history. It is whitewashed and leaves many students questioning the importance of their identity.
Racism can present itself indirectly through comments or behaviours that make people aware that they are a minority. Students being told their natural hair is against the school uniform code is just another example of how institutions police Black bodies, and particularly Black women. The phrase “death by a thousand cuts” is a common and accurate way to describe how microaggressions chip away at a person's mental health. Centre for Mental Health describes microaggressions as “behaviours and communications that can signal prejudicial attitudes, a lack of trust, fear or avoidance”. It is exhausting to be constantly reminded that you are the ‘odd one out’ in the room. Why is it unusual that I am in the same space as you?
When connecting with mental health services, you hope to have the space to be vulnerable about how you feel, but often you end up cautious about the way you come across
‘Black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than White people’.
Even reading this statistic is distressing. The issue is that institutional racism upholds misconceptions and false assumptions about race and ethnicity, in schooling, the workplace and in mental health care. When connecting with mental health services, you hope to have the space to be vulnerable about how you feel, but often you end up cautious about the way you come across in fear of being negatively perceived or dismissed.
Racism and discrimination are risk factors for mental ill health, so improving mental health services and challenging racism go hand in hand. But young Black people in such places – whether it be in education or the workplace – often find they cannot freely express themselves, let alone be open about their mental health.
If I had received more support at school and felt as if I could approach my teachers about the feelings I had, my journey would have been a lot easier.
I first experienced feelings of anxiety in sixth form. I felt worried and uncertain about my future, and often questioned my ability at school. I felt misunderstood and found it difficult to engage with the education system. Teachers often label students as disruptive when they do not understand their behaviour. I missed classes due to feelings of anxiety and was disciplined rather than offered support. If I had received more support at school and felt as if I could approach my teachers about the feelings I had, my journey would have been a lot easier.
I felt immense pressure to get the grades that would take me to university, prove my inner critic wrong and challenge those who knocked my confidence. For many Black students, this is an all-too-common experience; we are told to ‘‘consider other options'' when applying to Russell Group universities or degrees that require higher predicted grades. This lowered my self-esteem, but thankfully encouragement from my family and my desire to attend university pushed me to continue. After exceeding my predicted grades and getting into the university of my choice, this feeling of not belonging still lingered. I went to a university with low Black representation in both the staff and student community, and left my family behind in Bristol.
I found it hard to access mental health support, and draining attempting to articulate how I felt to wellbeing officers
Despite some great memories at university, it was the time where I struggled with my anxiety the most. I often felt overwhelmed by deadlines and lonely as I avoided burdening friends with my worries. I found it hard to access mental health support, and draining attempting to articulate how I felt to wellbeing officers. It’s essential that schools, colleges, and universities recognise young people who are struggling with their mental health, provide better support and signpost them to appropriate services. Black young people should have safe spaces to talk about their mental health.
For mental health services and charities, it is not enough to claim to be an anti-racist organisation. It’s important to be diverse and listen to the unique challenges individuals face when navigating their mental health. Wider systematic changes are needed. Organisations need to be genuine in their approach to tackling mental health inequalities, build trust with communities and strive to meet their needs.
Rahma Duale is a volunteer at ONYX Youth Hub, an online support hub for Black Youth (Bristol and Milton Keynes). She’s a former youth advocate for FORWARD UK and is currently a policy and research intern at Samaritans.
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