Mental Health and the Black narrative – breaking down barriers
by: a curious public servant | | Share
Pray on it - This is a typical response a person of African or Black descent might receive after disclosing a mental health concern to a loved one within the community. As a woman of Nigerian descent, it’s a sentiment I am all too familiar with. Faith is buried within the very foundation of these communities, dating back to the slave trade and beyond. People looked to traditional deities and objects of worship through deliberate communication to overcome times of hardship. Generations later, this is still a firm reality for many. While one cannot overlook the sense of grounding, strength, and comfort that come with a religious or spiritual belief system, a person undergoing a mental health crisis likely requires professional help. However, in many Black communities, effective mental health resources are few and far between.
Black communities, including gender-diverse Black people, Black persons with disabilities, Afro-Indigenous peoples, and Black members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community have been disadvantaged for generations. Colonialism, oppression, and racism continue to have a lasting impact, not to mention high unemployment rates, lack of medical services, and other forms of systemic inequity. Over time, these issues have resulted in a mental health service access gap. According to a survey by the Mental Health Commission, 38.3% of Black Canadians with mental health issues used mental health services between 2001-2014 compared to 50.8% of White Canadians. Mental health continues to be a taboo subject within the Black community.
This is obviously a problem, so what’s being done to address it?
To help answer that, I spoke with Maame De-Heer, a Policy Analyst at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). From working as an intern in the public health department at Tema general hospital in Ghana, to completing a Master’s degree at the University of Toronto in Social and Behavioral Health Sciences, Maame has a comprehensive understanding of barriers to health, specifically within the African diaspora.
Maame works for the Mental Health of Black Canadians (MHBC) initiative which is focused on increasing understanding of the unique barriers to social determinants of health for Black Canadians. At the same time, the initiative aims to increase knowledge of effective culturally-focused approaches and programs that can improve mental health.
“We want to increase the capacity within Black Canadian communities to address barriers to mental health.”
“We want to increase the capacity within Black Canadian communities to address barriers to mental health”, explains Maame De-Heer.
Systemic inequity, lack of resources and capacity building, – not to mention racism – are just some of the challenges Black Canadians face. Maame elaborates, “Racism has been identified as a social determinant of health. Those who experience racism could have adverse health outcomes”. Maame adds, “When we look at social economic status, the majority of Black people are marginalized. We are disadvantaged and underserved.” These historical barriers continue to limit access to appropriate resources.
Culturally tailored approach
Resources to help close these gaps do exist, but how effective are they? Maame draws attention to the lack of access to culturally responsive mental health support. “We often find these resources are not tailored to our culture, nor are they culturally responsive, so they are not being sought out.”
“There seems to be this overarching idea that as Black people, we are strong and can handle anything thrown at us, and conversations regarding mental health are avoided out of fear of looking weak. “We slap spiritually on our struggles like a band aid without getting to the root of it.”
I mentioned earlier that there is a massive stigma when it comes to mental health discussions in the Black community. There seems to be this overarching idea that as Black people, we are strong and can handle anything thrown at us, and conversations regarding mental health are avoided out of fear of looking weak. “We slap spirituality on our struggles like a band aid without getting to the root of it.” Maame says.
There are existing Mental health resources within diasporic communities that utilize this tailored approach such as the Black Health Alliance and Kaleo Productions. Kaleo Productions is a unique organization that bridges the gap between spirituality and mental health by promoting forms of entertainment through media, stage play, and television. “It is providing an avenue for these conversations to take place in a cognitive sense.” Maame shares. The Black Health Alliance is a community-led charity working to improve the health and overall well-being of Black communities in Canada.
Maame also runs a grassroots initiative called the Power of love foundation Canada. This organization focuses on aligning women struggling with mental health issues as a result of gender-based violence, depression, and anxiety with mental health support specific to each individual’s need by out-sourcing services to culturally responsive initiatives in the Greater Toronto Area. “When these women are matched with councillors or peer support workers, there should be a lived experience they could relate to.” Maame adds. Access to mental health support systems like these, as well as therapy, will help mitigate some of the mental health issues that Black Canadians face.
The power of representation
“There is historical mistrust of the health care system amongst Black people and that has hindered us to gain access to proper health care, but receiving care from someone of a similar background has been believed to improve health overall.”
When it comes to healthcare, representation is critical. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of professionals with African/Caribbean/Black backgrounds in medical and mental health fields, which creates yet another barrier for accessing reliable mental health services. This lack of representation contributes to the weakened quality of health care that Black communities receive. “There is historical mistrust of the health care system amongst Black people and that has hindered us to gain access to proper health care but receiving care from someone of a similar background has been believed to improve health overall”, Maame explains.
While we reflect on representation, we also need to think about the future. Young people have the power to close some of these gaps. Maame talked about a program within MHBC called transitions. She explained that the program involves “providing knowledge to young Black women and girls between the ages of 15-25 in hopes that they would be better prepared to enter the labour market and boost representation.”
Channelling emotional strain into purpose
“I have channelled this emotional strain into purpose with my organization. I ask myself, within my capacity, what can I do to close this gap?”
When asked how she deals with the emotional strain of being a Black woman in a society grappling with systemic racism, Maame responds, “I have channelled this emotional strain into purpose with my organization. I ask myself, within my capacity, what can I do to close this gap? I recognize that although I am marginalized because of my race, I am privileged. I recognize that I do have an advantage in comparison to many others in the Black community and I want to use this advantage to make a difference. This has helped me balance with my strain and my energy.”
Let’s keep talking about it
Now more that ever – and especially in this pandemic climate – mental health discussions are at the forefront of many conversations. We asked Maame about how we can work together as a greater community to destigmatize mental health and help build healthier Black communities. “We talk about everything from our hair to our nails, to the best grocery stores for ethnic foods. Let’s talk about mental health in our families, our churches, and greater communities. It’s important that we keep this dialogue going. The more we talk about it, the more we will get comfortable with it”.
“It’s important for us in the Black community to talk openly about mental health, to have access to professional services, and to see ourselves represented in the field.”
Traditional sources of comfort and support can provide strength and grounding, but they don’t have to be the end of the conversation. It’s important for us in the Black community to talk openly about mental health, to have access to professional services, and to see ourselves represented in the field.
The challenges are generations in the making, so things won’t change overnight. But my conversation with Maame made me optimistic about the concrete steps we can take to improve mental health and reduce the stigma. And with each step, we break down the barriers.
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