Q&A with Soraya Stuart from Black Minds Matter UK

Black Minds Matter UK is a charitable fund set up by Agnes Mwakatuma and Annie Nash in summer 2020, to provide Black individuals and families with access to free mental health services – by professional Black therapists, specifically for Black trauma. I spoke to Soraya from the Black Minds Matter UK team, to find out more about their mission and how many people they’ve been able to support through therapy so far.

SG: When and why was Black Minds Matter UK founded?

SS: It was founded just days after George Floyd was murdered, off the back of that. I think it had been an idea that Annie and Agnes had been thinking of and then, a few days after George Floyd died, they set up a GoFundMe page. I don’t think they were expecting it get so big so quickly, but they raised half a million pounds in a matter of months.

Why is there such a need for something like Black Minds Matter?

I think, when it comes to the therapy needs of Black people, generally the NHS only really caters to mild to moderate traumas. It’s not really directed towards Black people who do suffer more from complex PTSD and secondary trauma. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) isn’t necessarily going to help us overcome things like systemic racism, and I think that’s what this has really highlighted. Creating this around the time George Floyd died was really perfect timing, because people actually tuned in and really listened to what we had to say.

How does it work in terms of matching therapists to clients?

It’s completely free, Black individuals and families can go onto the Black Minds Matter website, register their interest, and they will then be eligible for 12 sessions of therapy. All of our therapists are Black, fully vetted, certified, and culturally competent. They must be a counsellor or psychotherapist who’s part of one of the major registers, such as the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy).

We don’t have life coaches or sports therapists, and there’s a very, very stringent vetting process because legally anybody can call themselves a therapist. Saying you’re a therapist because you believe you can help someone is very, very dangerous; it’s playing with people’s lives. So we’re very careful to make sure we have a safe space where people know they’re going to be able to access the best treatment in a safe environment, with someone who’s actually properly qualified.

However, the waiting list is now closed for the moment, because we’re at capacity. So far we’ve been able to fund 1,200 people to access therapy, but there were 2,600 on the waiting list. We’re now trying to raise another half a million pounds to be able to fund the next round of therapy for those remaining 1,400. It did fill up quite quickly. Although half million pounds is a lot of money, there’s been a lot of demand from people wanting therapy, so that money does go quite quickly.

What are the the biggest issues and barriers that Black people face when it comes to their mental health and accessing support?

I would say – and this is something from my own personal experiences – one of the biggest challenge is trying to actually explain that you are going through a mental health episode. Within the NHS system, for some reason, Black people are notoriously believed to be stronger, and therefore are more likely to have their health concerns dismissed. You only have to look at the mortality rates – the fact that Black women are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth – to understand how dangerous that can be.

Another issue is dealing with doctors who perhaps don’t really understand your cultural background. I actually have a Black female doctor, and whenever I’ve gone to speak to her about issues with my mental health, she’s actually listened and understood me. When I’ve spoken about things to do with my family or my culture, she gets it straight away. Having access to a Black doctor means it takes half the time, half the effort and half the stress, and you also feel more validated as well. Everyone wants to feel validated when it comes to their health concerns – it puts your mind at rest, makes you feel like you’re being taken seriously. I know I’m not going to be dismissed, I’m going to get the treatment I need, the treatment I deserve.

The trauma of slavery runs through Black people’s DNA, and we suffer from secondary trauma – seeing Black people killed all the time on social media or TV, constantly seeing news outlets portraying negative stereotypes about us, getting Black celebrities mixed up, seeing Meghan Markle constantly chastised in the newspapers. It’s very difficult to find a doctor who understands your cultural background and the traumas you may have faced. It’s not that white doctors are necessarily racist, but I just know the difference with my Black doctor. It’s a lot less stress, and there’s that immediate empathy and understanding.

Within corporate structures too, everyone’s feeling a lot of stress at work at the moment anyway, given everything that’s happening with COVID. When you add the Black Lives Matter movement, for many Black people that’s an added source of pressure and anxiety on your mental health. Some corporate structures aren’t necessarily built or equipped to help people with that. If you need to take a mental health day, because you’re feeling really anxious, or you’re feeling secondary trauma because of what’s happened to George Floyd, how many people around you are going to be able to understand that? It’s a very, very real thing. I know a lot of people are struggling to navigate themselves through work at the moment with COVID and with Black Lives Matter.

The Black Minds Matter platform has raised and highlighted so many issues. We’ve hosted so many talks with Black creatives, people within the wellness industry, music artists, and it’s nice to be able to go to a space where you can see so many people who feel like this too.

What’s the long-term goal of Black Minds Matter?

We really believe that this is not a moment, this is a movement. It was great when people put the black squares up for 24 hours, but the rest of us are Black for the other 364 days of the year. So this is about catering for people’s lives, and the aim is to keep going for as long as possible. I think this is a lasting legacy, highlighting Black mental health issues within the UK and across the world.

How can readers get involved and support you?

Follow Black Minds Matter on social media (links below), donate, spread awareness, organise fundraisers. We’ve had artists and clothes designers who’ve done a specific Black Minds Matter edition, or said a portion of their proceeds will go towards Black Minds Matter.

Even if you can’t donate, familiarise yourself with Black people’s mental health issues. If you take the time to understand what it can be like for a Black person within the UK, that’s helping to break down barriers anyway. Maybe you have a Black friend, who you can sit with and listen, and just say, okay, I’ve done my due diligence, I’m researching, I want to understand. I think that really helps too, just going the extra mile and doing the research to understand  why your friend or family member, or any Black person in the UK, may be feeling the way that they do.

How can healthcare professionals better support Black patients as well?

It would be great if white doctors, nurses, any white professional within the NHS were re-educated on these issues, especially from the mortality side. Just imagine right now going to give birth – you’re already scared because of COVID, but then you’ve also got at the back of your mind the knowledge that you’re five times more likely than a white woman to die while having your child. Imagine the anxiety these women must be feeling. It’s not just about the mortality rate, but the mental effects that has too.

These are things that doctors need to actively be aware of. It’s just about saying, ‘I understand your health concerns. I understand why you might feel like this. This is what my team are going to do to make sure we take extra care of you’ – because we do need extra care. Re-education from a Black standpoint is needed because more education and understanding is the only way things will change.

You can find Black Minds Matter online, on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

You can donate at GoFundMe, or contribute to the Black Minds Matter fundraising page.

#BlackWomensHealthMatters is published in partnership with period and leak-proof underwear brand Modibodi.

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