Black men are not getting the mental health treatment they deserve

2nd April 2020

It’s not revolutionary to say that due to social conditioning a lot of men aren’t comfortable discussing their emotions and this can inhibit the diagnosis and treatment of mental ill-health in young men, especially when race comes into play. 

Michael* first started suffering from mental ill-health in his late teens. Aged 18, he broke up with his first girlfriend and that triggered a breakdown. His depression and anxiety worsened, and he found himself seeking help in the form of CBT. 

As a young black man, Michael felt as though in some situations, his race and gender preceded him. In school he struggled with labelling as authority figures treated his mental health struggles as behavioural issues. He felt as though he received different treatment and often people would be quick to brand him with an “attitude problem” rather than exploring deeper.

Mental health in the UK is still heavily stigmatised in certain communities and there is no doubt that more work needs to be done to unpack the intersectionality of mental health and mental health treatments. 

We risk losing plenty of people to severe mental ill-health because of deep-rooted stigma. In my own Somali community, I have observed a lot of Somali men’s mental health lead them to feel isolated by the wider community. The authorities deem them to be more than ‘criminally minded’ and they end up spending a lot of time in prisons.  And if they are offered treatment its more to do with forcibly detaining them like sectioning them under the Mental Health Act rather than more effective forms of treatment like talk therapy. 

Taylor* didn’t acknowledge his own mental health for a long time and currently tries to do some work with the wider community to raise awareness. In terms of mental health treatment, he believes that a lot of the rationale behind the treatments (whether that be medication or counselling) will stem from the assumption that black men are “aggressive” and this “sets a tone for the interaction before the interaction is even formed”.

I spoke to Ben Jones, a peer support worker from Together for Mental Wellbeing, an organisation that provides mental health support in criminal justice settings as well as in communities, accommodation and advocacy while working towards de-stigmatising mental health. Ben said he feels he has observed an over-representation of young black men in the people he works alongside in his peer support role and that is reflected in reports such as CQC’s Monitoring the Mental Health Act Report or The Lammy Review. Ben explained that we need to recognise the varying experiences amongst different people. 

Linda Bryant, chief executive of the charity, she says peer support and lived experience are a big part of the support services offered. She says: “Ben is one of our fantastic peer supporters at Together. He offers valuable support to people from a perspective of his own lived experience of mental distress and sharing what has helped him on his journey towards emotional wellbeing. We have known for many years that black men are disproportionality sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and the findings in the recent CQC report are stark. Rates of detention for Black or Black British people in 2018/19 were more than four times higher than for White British people.  We need to be more creative and develop services, such as peer support, that provide alternative routes for people to access care and treatment in the community”.

It’s safe to say that it is dangerous to assume that black men are one homogeneous group with one collective experience that require one uniform approach. We need a multi-pronged approach to dealing with young black men and mental ill-health. Alongside greater recognition within the authorities, there is also a demand for more outreach programmes in marginalised communities teaching older and new generations alike about spotting potential diagnoses and after-care. 

Seemingly, simple things like language can make the world of difference to a way someone is perceived. I spoke to Michael candidly about the “Strong Black Man” narrative and how he feels about this brand of social conditioning. Young black men are perceived to be “strong” and in many ways “immoveable” and these social images are damaging not least because they are near impossible to maintain. These narratives dehumanise young black men by denying the right to fluctuating human emotions. Interestingly, Michael says that there is a “romanticisation of the struggle, of being oppressed”. He goes on to explain that even if you don’t feel necessarily oppressed, you weirdly end up craving up as people expect you to speak and act a certain way. 

In contrast, Taylor feels as though whilst he has been influenced by the “Strong Black Man” narrative to an extent – he has never really been good at fitting into the narrow boxes of society’s image of young black men. 

We need to change the social stereotypes of young black men and one of the ways we can start, is with education. Ben, from Together for Mental Wellbeing, says that “School-age children can almost be subject to self-fulfilling prophecies through their labels”. In his own lived experience, Michael recalls an incident when a teacher used expletives to reprimand him publically and how, in that moment, he was in “disbelief” at how he was being treated.

With young black men, it’s almost as though we are forgetting the human experience of mental health. The varying experiences and the day-to-day nuances that go hand in hand with any aspect of health. 

2nd April 2020