Different cultures can have different ideas and interpretations of the term ‘mental health.’ From my own experience, as an Afro-Irish, in the African community, family, community and spiritual beliefs tend to be a great sources of strength and support. Many African communities (and in this case, Nigerians) generally rely especially on faith, family and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, even though medical or therapeutic treatment may be necessary.
Changing how we think about mental health
Being a Christian, faith and spirituality definitely help me and others in the recovery process, but I believe they should not be the only option for mental health support. Other ethnic communities may not share Western ideas or use Western language about mental health. In some Black communities, mental illness and psychological distress are seen as weaknesses, historically and culturally.
Growing up, I have always struggled with mental health due to various and ongoing issues in my life. But I really didn’t allow it to sit with me until between the ages of 12-14. Even then it was still hard.
Because growing up with two cultural perspectives has always tugged me back and forth, back and forth. I had, being born and raised in Ireland, gone through the education system, where we would have a “national week” dedicated to mental health in secondary school with guidance counsellors, retreats, speakers etc coming in to talk on the importance of mental health. But I found that it’s easier to relate to someone that looked like you and came from the same background or upbringing as you did.
I understood the message but going back home to a different community who aren’t really as understanding or who didn’t focus on education or advocacy in this area, had always set me back. When dealing with my own depression I was often told that “black women are supposed to be strong” or “Depression is a white thing. Going to a therapist is a white thing.”
Starting conversations about mental health
But at this stage, I was tired of looking elsewhere. Mental health issues doesn’t discriminate. It had to begin with me. I want to encourage black individuals and other minoritized individuals to take care of their mental health. To discuss it in a way that eliminates the stigma attached to seeking help, explaining that, in fact, it is a sign of strength to recognise that you need help, accept it, and seek it out.
I believe it’s important to bring awareness to the unique struggles that underrepresented groups face, in regards to mental health illness. ‘Minority’ can be associated with racial, ethnic, or cultural minorities, expanding now also to a wide range of marginalized and underserved communities, including refugee and immigrant groups, and religious groups, and etc. Our identities are formed not only by what we believe to be true, but also the views of others around us. Some communities must constantly work towards combating stereotypes to maintain their wellbeing. As we all have our own identities, we must constantly confront the biases and stereotypes that others use to define us.
I want to fight against any biases and negative stereotypes of Black individuals and those from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds, supporting their value in the world and in our health care systems. There are too many misconceptions about mental health in minority communities. Even something as simple as having a regular coffee morning in a community where we can openly talk about mental health and address the barriers to accessing support would be useful.
Why we need to consider race, bias and stereotypes
I want to be a part of the move towards change and equal opportunity by informing, educating, and accepting, with my experiences, that we do not know all that we need to about each other’s culture, but that we care enough to ask questions with cultural humility. I think more training is needed to develop a heightened awareness and sensitivity to how issues of race, bias and negative cultural stereotypes contribute to inequalities in professional mental health services and organisations and media.
We need to ensure diversity across all areas of the health system, so that the message reaches all types of communities that we have in an ever changing Ireland. Diversity in mental health awareness ads in the media could be one way of doing this, or having a diverse group of mental health ambassadors across the country could work. For what I can see, especially the younger generation: people are influenced by what they see. In the words of Martin Luther King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Anyone can experience the challenges of mental illness regardless of their background. However, background and identity can make access to mental health treatment much more difficult. I want to be strong in equality change that I wish to continue seeing….
Life is like this swing: you have to let go to move forward. Once you make the decision, it’s scary! But you’ll sure loosen your grasp on old ideas so you can swing free your way to new ones…..
Minority Mental Health Awareness Month – Background history
Bebe Moore Campbell was a leading African American journalist, novelist, and a national spokesperson for individuals and families affected by mental illness in the United States. She was one of the founding members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Urban Los Angeles Chapter. After her death in 2006, friends, family, and advocates who were inspired by her work and passion led the charge to create an official minority mental health awareness month.
July was then born to be declared as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month in 2008. Since then, July has been a time to acknowledge and explore issues concerning mental health, substance use disorders, and minority communities, and to destigmatize mental illness and enhance public awareness of mental illness.