The Covid Pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues globally. The strained circumstances that people find themselves in physically, psychologically, financially and the list goes on has put a lot of pressure on the mental health of most people and led to a lot of depression amongst other conditions.
We often hear the phrase, “Black people don’t go to therapy”, but this does not make it correct. As its still Black History Month, we are continuing to shed light on issues and starting conversations about subjects that affect black people internationally. A few blogs back, we wrote about the importance of black history month and its origins. Our hope is that this month is simply a catalyst for these discourses which will continue beyond Black History Month.
Today, let’s talk about mental health – the elephant in the room. The definition of mental health issues, for the longest time in black communities, has been limited to severe manic episodes that people can see. Even then, treatment is mostly insufficient and from a place of ignorance.
With this background, it is hard to get acknowledgement over mental health issues like depression. In fact, some black communities believe that depression, anxiety and trauma is impossible for black people as our cultures are mostly exuberant and require regular bursts of energy or joy.
Some government systems and policies make it harder for black and minority communities globally to access mental health treatment. Race and the issues around the poor treatment of black people historically and presently has a way of affecting us psychologically. Psychotherapists have said that the impact is usually felt in the consulting room with black clients who experience anxiety, anger, exhaustion and a feeling of powerlessness in the face of racial inequalities and injustices in the societies in which they live.
In both the US and the UK, the majority of counsellors and psychotherapists are white. This, coupled with the high financial costs, means that black people may be less inclined to access services because of the therapist’s perceived lack of understanding when it comes to culture or indeed, the black experience.
Research has shown that a black client’s experience can be misinterpreted by a white therapist and lead to dangerous misdiagnoses. According to an independent review of the UK’s Mental Health Act in 2018, “profound inequalities” were found to exist, with black British people four times more likely to be sectioned than white people and more likely to be given psychoactive medication instead of a talking therapy.
In some African countries, the issue is poor mental health legislation and a lack of public appreciation for the issue. Mental health struggles are seen as elitist and a ‘white problem’. In Nigeria, for instance, there have been some changes and more conversation is being had but the legislation is holding progress back.
Nigeria's mental health legislation was first enacted in 1916 and was called the Lunacy Ordinance. In 1958, these laws were amended to give medical practitioners and magistrates the power to detain an individual suffering from mental illness. Renamed the Lunacy Act of 1958, these laws have not been amended since.
Today, this legislation is outdated and archaic, reflective of a period in human history not only when mental health was severely misunderstood but also when the treatment of people with mental health-care needs was both inhumane and ineffective.
In 2003, a Mental Health Bill was put forward to the National Assembly of Nigeria. With little support and no progress for more than 6 years, it was withdrawn in April, 2009. This Bill was presented again in 2013, when the National Policy for Mental Health Services Delivery set out the principles for the delivery of care to people with mental, neurological, and substance abuse problems.
Underpinned by poor societal attitudes towards mental illness and inadequate resources, facilities, and mental health staff, figures suggest that approximately 80% of individuals with serious mental health needs in Nigeria cannot access care.
There are fewer than 300 psychiatrists for a population of more than 200 million, most of whom are based in urban areas. We need to take action and do more. We need to equate mental health with physical health. One could argue strongly that mental health is way more important than physical health. We need to take a more holistic view of health so that we address these issues openly and people can get the support that they need. Mental health issues are not a stigma, everyone experiences them from time to time to varying degrees and classifications, just as everyone experiences physiological issues from time to time.
Everyone can play their part. First, acknowledge that mental health issues exist in black communities and do your part in spreading awareness. You can start by sharing this article.