Guest post by Mary Raftopoulos, co-founder of This Is Impt
Mary is the co-founder of This Is Impt, a platform for Black British voices to be heard, launched in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter Movement.
She was paid for her contribution thanks to sponsorship from Wakey! – the breakfast show app with a focus on mental health and wellbeing. Find out more and download the app below.
There is such a stigma with mental illness, especially in the Black community – it’s a loud whisper; no one talks about it. Oftentimes you would find family members disappearing and reappearing a year later after a stint in the village back home. This is how most problems are solved in the Black community – if you display behavioural issues then it’s because you have become too westernised and need time at home, either attending Boarding School or living with your Grandparents in the village.
1 in 4 people will experience mental health issues in the UK – so why is it such a taboo to talk about it?
The reluctance to talk about mental health and normalise it within the community makes it difficult for people to come forward and seek the help they need because they don’t want to be gossiped about on the family WhatsApp group or be seen as broken and weak. Growing up, my family would delay telling me anything that may upset me or cause me to worry fearing they may trigger my anxiety. Although this came from a place of love, it only caused me to worry more because I wouldn’t have all the information.
I had my first panic attack at 11, an eating disorder by 12, and exhibited compulsive behaviour at 13. I felt like I had no control over my own body and I didn’t understand what was going on, why I had these attacks, or why I got a sense of release when I made myself throw up. My compulsive behaviour got worse as I started secondary school. I found that I could only sit on the right hand side of the classroom and handle an even number of books otherwise I would panic internally. All my suffering was internal; I felt alone. I kept a diary where I would make note of my measurements, weight and food with the calorie count of each bite. I wasn’t sure what this disease was; I wasn’t anorexic or bulimic – it was something in between.
My parents reacted quickly and got me help right away, but we never really spoke about my issues at home. They would follow the plan laid out by my doctor but we never really discussed my anxiety and eating disorder – it became something I felt I had to deal with on my own. Even after I got better, it felt like it was all in my head until several years later, when I had a drunken conversation with my cousin about mental health. Hearing her talk about my eating disorder out loud made me feel a sense of release; I wasn’t crazy, it happened.
Although I learned to control my unhealthy eating habits and compulsive behaviour, my anxiety on the other hand is a constant battle. If you have ever had a panic attack, you know it’s the most alarming and frightening thing to experience; you literally feel like you’re dying.
It took years for me to really understand this disease. I would have doctors not understand what I needed or what I was going through. They would often dismiss me as an attention seeker when all I wanted was their help overcoming my issues. It wasn’t until I found other people who had been through similar things to me that I started to understand it. I had never spoken about my issues so openly before and, for the first time, I had someone I could talk to openly who understood what I was going through.
As thankful as I am for the NHS, with their constant budget cuts and overworked medical professionals it can sometimes be difficult to get the help that you need – especially as a person of colour. We are impacted by the long waiting times for accurate assessment, language barriers, poor communication, and assumption-based diagnosis stemming from cultural and racial stereotypes.
I eventually found a female GP who helped me. She was understanding, asked the right questions and listened like no other doctor before her had. She referred me to a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) specialist, who helped me understand why I had these issues and how to manage them. This form of therapy helped me truly overcome my issues and understand why I did the things that I did. I learned what my triggers were and how to avoid them. It took me over 10 years to find a GP who understood me, and a further 10 years to truly feel mentally healthy. I know I am not alone. There are others out there who have gone through the system trying to get help and have been misdiagnosed or ignored.
I recently spoke to a few women of colour about their experiences with the NHS and getting help, and it was a tale similar to my own. Several had to wait up to six months on waiting lists, but most of them did get the help they needed in the end. One of the women I spoke to though suffered with a severe persistent depressive disorder, as well as a long list of other traumas, and sadly her GP had continued to ignore her symptoms. They didn’t take her illness seriously until she mentioned wanting to hurt herself and even then she had to wait months to see a therapist. Once she did get off the waiting list, her sessions were subpar. Considering her full book of trauma and severe anxiety attacks, panic attacks and depressive episodes that lasted months, the amount of help she received was insufficient. After waiting months to see a therapist she received only six sessions over the phone. Obviously this was not much help.
Black people not only have to deal with the fear and pressure of talking to their families about the state of their mental health, and the stigma that may come with it, but they also have to deal with talking to a therapist who may not understand their personal struggles or even want to discuss it as a way to stay politically neutral.
Mental illness and therapy are seen as things that only affect white people, so there are people of colour who struggle in silence – wanting help but not knowing who to turn to. Fortunately there are organisations out there that were created to help people of colour (POC) with mental health issues, because there is a need for it in the community to help remove the stigma. Organisations like Black Minds Matter and Thy.Self have begun having open conversations about mental health and created a network built to specifically help POC cope and get the help they need without fear of judgement. Let us continue to discuss mental health openly and honestly until we change the narrative and erase the stigma.
Mental Health organisations and resources for POC:
Wakey! Is the interactive breakfast show app, designed to get you out of bed and improve your mental wellbeing – it’s never been more needed! Download now from the link below.