On Racism & Mental Health

Following on from last week's piece on Mental Health Awareness Week, which explored how our capitalist society fundamentally affects our mental health in a negative way, Mélina Valdelièvre shares her own testimony and explores how racism and other social pressures cause problems. The piece is adapted from a speech delivered at the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) on Saturday. It includes real-life stories some may find triggering or upsetting...

When I was preparing my speech for the STUC Equalities mental health event on Saturday, I found it difficult to reflect on my encounters with mental health problems, chiefly because it feels as if there's no way of making sense of them. Not all of these are first-hand experiences, so there's plenty I may be missing as I can only see one side of the story. The best I can do is to try and draw some meaning from these experiences, fill in the gaps and speculate with the hope of identifying some of the social structures that harm us all.

I want to use a collectivist lens with the desire of empowering social movements, but I don’t forget that each story is individual, unique and sensitive. It may trigger difficult emotions for some and hopefully for others it may be validating and thought-provoking in some way. Personally, activism within social movements has allowed me to deal with my anxiety and helped me make sense of my life experiences. Angela Davis once said that “we have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating societies”. To liberate minds, we have to question ourselves and rid ourselves from all the internal biases and social rules that may be crippling us and harming others. We also have to be forgiving of ourselves. We can be tough on the issue, but we must be soft on the person.

First of all, if we're to overcome mental health obstacles together, to help ourselves and support others, it's essential we all adopt an intersectional approach. In order to do this, we need to take a closer look at our own identity and the various forms of oppression that exist in our society. As a lot of woke millennials like to say – check your privilege. So if you'sre white, heteronormative, cisgender, able-bodied, wealthy and/or male, you are less likely to experience the type of structural oppression and alienation that affects people of colour, LGBT+ people, people with disabilities, low-income people and women.

All of these oppressions can intersect depending on your identity. However, even though white, heterosexual, able-bodied, wealthy, cis-males are often considered the most privileged group in terms of social inequality, suicide rates of young men have shown us that mental health doesn't discriminate – it involves us all. Every section of identity leads to unique experience that we need to respect and value if we wish to fight oppression. We need to grow aware of our places within structures of oppression and the way our actions, intentional or not, may affect the mental health of those who face those social pressures.  

It's as an able-bodied cis-woman of colour that I seek to explore some of the ways in which systemic racism and systemic sexism can affect mental health. By systemic racism, I mean the prejudices and biases that are reinforced by institutions, legislations and white supremacy. Similarly, systemic sexism involves biases reinforced by institutions and the patriarchy.

Last year, I had the honour of hearing Marilyn Reed share the tragic story of her daughter, Sarah Reed, a black woman who suffered from mental health problems after the death of her first-born baby in 2003. I will speculate that her mental wellbeing was impaired by her treatment as a black woman: when her baby died, the hospice gave her the dead baby’s body wrapped in a sheet to take to the undertaker in a taxi – a traumatising situation caused by an institution’s failure to provide an appropriate service for a woman of colour, which might not have happened to a white person.

Then, in 2012, Sarah was at the centre of a police brutality case that spread through the UK Black Lives Matter movement. A white male police officer falsely accused her of shoplifting and was caught on CCTV violently yanking her by the hair and punching her in the head even though she was harmless and unarmed. As a consequence, she suffered years of mental ill-health, fearing tall, white males.

Two years later, in 2014, it was as a patient detained under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act that she suffered a sexual assault. Sarah was a victim of an attempted rape and when she fought her attacker, injuring him, the staff called the police. It was Sarah who was arrested, not the male attacker. Her experience undoubtedly serves to demonstrate the extent of systemic racism and sexism in our society.

Sarah should never have been in prison, but this injustice cost her her life, as she had no access to mental health support or medication in prison. In January 2016, Sarah’s family were informed that Sarah had suspiciously strangled herself whilst lying in bed in her prison cell. Her story is disturbing and highlights the ways in which a vulnerable black woman can be falsely criminalised and let down by mental health services. She was a victim of institutional racism and sexual violence. Her case proves that mental health services are not sensitive to, and do not cater for, every form of identity. And let's not forget that the discrimination and the injustice can be fatal.

Identity, alienation, mental health stigma and social pressures are all factors that affect our mental wellbeing. Four years ago, I had a tough time with my first experiences of serious mental ill-health. My grandfather in India, my last living grandparent, was terminally ill and very far away. At that point, I was obsessed with positive thinking and being a strong, independent woman who never cried, so I wasn’t letting myself feel sad about the situation.

My grandfather in France had passed away a few months before that, although I had the opportunity to see him a last time and say goodbye. We often forget how mentally straining distance can be for migrants – your family is spread across the globe and you are constantly in the search for that golden place called home. When part of your family lives in different countries, when you have a multicultural heritage, wherever you are, something is always missing and you never quite fit in as you search for that cosy place called home.

Anyway, for some reason I became anxious about my future and where my home would be. What kind of job I would have. Who my partner would be. And I wanted to make my family proud. I wanted to make my Indian grandfather proud before he passed away. I wanted to make my mother proud, who had worked her way through the hardships of racism in France and been such a wonderful mother. Her life had been so much harder than mine and I wanted to live up to her.

But times have changed and pressures have changed with them. Seeing people project the distorted, cherry-picked versions of their lives on social media made me feel inadequate. Being a person of colour, from France, in a predominantly white society all my life, I'd take pride in being different – I'd consider myself unique. But that's perhaps because I had the privilege of being the “right kind” of different – the “light-skinned” kind, the “exotic” kind, the “educated” kind, the model minority.

So in the final year of my undergraduate course, the daunting fear of failing to be the model minority, failing my exams and failing to be perfect was skewing my perspective. I began suffering from panic attacks, which started with hyperventilation whilst reading an assignment question. It then escalated into crippling stomach pains, muscle spasms, almost paralysis and feeling like my throat was closing up so that I physically couldn’t breathe.

Every time it happened, I genuinely thought I was dying. It would take me hours before I could relax again. The more I had the panic attacks, the more I worried about getting them again. It became a vicious spiral and I felt powerless, like I had lost all control over my body. As they became more frequent, I started having to cancel appointments. I cut down on anything but work because I was overwhelmed. I started worrying that something was inherently wrong with me. I was afraid of being labelled “crazy”. I had internalised the social stigma of having mental ill health and that was magnetising my anxiety.

Thankfully, my flatmates were supportive and encouraged me to get counselling from the university. Slowly, through group counselling, I managed to change my mind-set as I began to realise I wasn't alone in my mental ill health. I realised so many other people struggled, but not many actually made these aspects of their lives public. My group counselling provided me with a supportive network of people who had been through similar experiences and I was blessed to meet my current partner there too. If it hadn’t been for that group and my partner, I don’t know how I would have coped with what came in that next month.

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At the time, I was part of a Bhangra dance group with a group of friends of South Asian descent. I tried to share my experiences of anxiety with them, but we didn’t tend to talk much about our emotions in that way even though we were very close friends. One of the dancers – we called him Sonu – went missing one Friday night, a few weeks after his 20th birthday. None of us had any idea where he was, so we started investigating ourselves.

He was a medicine student at my university, so I tried to find out if he had any exam results which might have made it difficult to face his parents. We knew his family had high expectations of him and he wanted to become a doctor – but we know they'd forgive him if he happened to fail his exams. After several weeks of searching and police investigations, we discovered he'd been suffering from depression.

We also found out he'd failed his second year of medicine a year earlier and he was resitting the year. This meant his exams determined whether he could stay on the course or not. We were shocked that he'd kept this hidden from us. Just as I had, Sonu had probably feared the label of failure. One month after his disappearance, his body was found at a beach  – it was believed he'd drowned himself.

I remember distinctively admiring Sonu and telling him, a few weeks before his disappearance, that he was the funniest, most cheerful and light-hearted person I knew and it always seemed like he didn’t have a worry in the world. But that had all been a façade, one facet of his personality he wanted to project to the world. Mental ill health tends to be stigmatised especially in communities of colour and in men. Recognising mental wellbeing involves making yourself vulnerable.

For communities of colour who have historically suffered from oppression, mental strength was required to fight oppression and mental instability became an excuse oppressors used to dominate them. If we look at colonisation and slavery, white supremacists would view people of colour as mentally unstable savages who needed to be controlled and civilised.

Narratives in British history and literature contribute to the propagation of such stereotypes. In Jane Eyre, the idea of a white man locking up his West Indian wife for allegedly being insane, without making the reader question his intentions, get to know his wife or feel any sympathy her contributes to the normalisation of such racist ideas. As a person of colour, projecting a powerful, mentally stable version of yourself is a way of distancing yourself from that stereotype. Moreover, recognising mental ill health involves exposing one’s emotions and allowing oneself to be weak; we all know that goes against all the traditional values of masculinity.

I'll never truly know what Sonu was thinking at the time. I can only speculate that Sonu’s masculine identity and his racial identity had a part to play in his mental ill-health which led him to his suicide. To some extent, this pressure to always be powerful, successful, while never showing any vulnerability is something I also struggled with as I strived to be a strong, independent woman.

I never wanted to be seen as a stereotypically subservient woman who can’t handle her emotions or who isn’t intellectually capable of pursuing a successful career. The pressure of challenging racist and sexist stereotypes took a toll on my ability to deal with my emotions. I always felt like whatever I did had to prove people wrong. That’s why, as a Franco-Indian person, I chose to become an English teacher and I chose not to teach French or RE.

Having to deal with my anxiety and the loss of my close friend to mental ill-health made me realise that it's a sign of great strength to let ourselves be vulnerable and allow ourselves to fail. Vulnerability is a quality I'm still working to develop, but it's really my little brother who has been teaching me this quality in the past three years.

And that brings me onto my final, more hopeful story. My younger brother Dwayne struggled with depression in high school. He felt isolated and bullied. He hardly ever smiled, he tended to mumble and his shoulders were always drawn in. He was called racist names by his peers in school. Every time he went on social media it made him unhappy to see everybody’s distorted version of their joyful lives.

As I had been struggling with anxiety and I had shared my experiences with him, he would open up a bit more to me. He would tell me he hated himself and that he felt worthless since he did not know how to socialise, how to make friends and be 'normal'. He was pushed into social isolation and that delayed the development of his socialising skills. He also felt more comfortable speaking in English, so it made it difficult for him to socialise with people in France. He was extremely sensitive to any form of judgment that might cloud people’s faces whenever he spoke.

Racism, whether it is intentional or not, is one of the root causes of many mental health problems. The everyday microaggressions alienate you and really affect your sense of self, from constantly being asked "where are you really from?", being scrutinised by the police and migration at airports, hearing the British Transport "See It, Say It, Sort It" slogan causing people to fear your skin colour, the regular anti-immigrant headlines on tabloids, to the white-washing of history that makes your ancestors of colour seem powerless and worthless. Add to that the occasional hate crime and toxic unattainable standards of masculinity - it's really no surprise that my brother developed bad mental health.

When he came to study in Dundee, he was so afraid of being ridiculed he could hardly even go to a supermarket because it involved speaking to a stranger at the till. Fortunately, he received counselling and began to realise that he had more control over his life. He began taking small steps and small risks and discovered he didn’t have so much to lose. He made massive improvements in a matter of months as he made friends and began to feel confident enough to regularly challenge himself and step out of his comfort zone.

Now, in his third year of university, Dwayne has transformed into a smiling, warm person who's ready to share his emotions with anybody willing to listen. Dwayne still has his moments of stress and depression, but his emotional intelligence and self-awareness is truly inspiring. He knows that some of his more “macho” friends consider him weird for being so open, that he's feminine for sharing his emotions.

But I don’t think he seems to care about such criticism anymore. In fact, he notices that whenever he shares his vulnerabilities with them one-to-one, those same “macho” friends begin to relate to his experiences and in turn open up about their mental health. Maybe, if more of us had the strength to be vulnerable like Dwayne, to listen to each other, more of us would be able to support each other and ourselves. And it's with this hope that I have shared my stories and made myself more vulnerable in the process.

@ScottishTUC