Black Mental Health In Canada
Black Mental Health in Canada
Stigma, Misunderstanding and Silence
Within the African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) community in Canada, those struggling with mental health issues are usually forced to do so in abject silence. Deep and entrenched misunderstandings and cultural taboos have led us to erect self-imposed barriers to accessing help and safe spaces to heal. These same barriers hinder the ability of ACB Canadians from successfully dealing with the challenges of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.
The Canadian ACB communities are diverse in language, culture and religion and the way mental health is taught in countries in Africa and the Caribbean also differs, says Akwatu Khenti, director of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) Office of Transformative Global Health. Spirituality and family values are important, and notions of mental health often come down to how they were raised.
Historically, for example, mental illness has been portrayed in Caribbean culture as a curse, or would mean that you had been possessed by evil. Black communities and others in these countries perceived mental illness as a negative experience, one that only happened if you offended someone or were given the evil eye, Khenti says. Being mentally ill would be considered your punishment.
The roots of these ideas stem from folklore rich with belief in Obeah, Voodoo, or Santeria — spiritual practices or religions that have their basis in African cultures. A person believed to be possessed could exhibit abnormal behaviour, some of which coincide with symptoms of illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety.
Well, here’s some truth about mental illness in the black community:
- People of Caribbean, East and West African origin in Ontario have 60% increased risk of psychosis.
- Over 19% used drugs or alcohol to deal with stress
- Black individuals are more likely to qualify as low-income, experience unemployment and be uninsured.
- Negative attitudes towards the health care system reduces black individuals’ willingness to seek and receive care.
- Mental health issues are not openly discussed in the black community and thus individuals struggle silently.
- Treatment providers are less likely to be black and many are not educated on black culture and black struggles.
Mental health problems within the black community in Canada present distinctive features depending on the stage of life. As children, it affects them in the areas of academics, social functioning, self-esteem, and behavioural problems. During teen years, it affects these same areas but adds the tendency to self-medicate, engage in risky behavior, and make bad choices that could lead to criminality, health problems, relational pitfalls and more. As an adult, mental health issues have the capacity to render someone dysfunctional in areas of work, relationships and self-care.
Many factors contribute to Black mental health problems, including:
- Biology, such as family genes and neurological problems from birth
- Life circumstances such as poverty, abuse, neglect and being subject to traumatic events
- Family history of mental health problems
- And, most obviously, racism…..
There is no need to be shameful about having mental health problems. Many people do but there are real and effective ways to get treated. Help is available and professionals are willing, ready and able to help. In fact the prognosis is very positive when treatment is sought and most individuals do get better and recover completely.
Early Warning Signs
If you believe you or someone you know may be suffering from mental illness, there are some key signs to look for:
- Eating or sleeping too much or too little
- Pulling away from people and usual activities
- Having low or no energy
- Feeling numb or like nothing matters
- Having unexplained aches and pains
- Feeling helpless or hopeless
- Smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual
- Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared
- Yelling or fighting with family and friends
- Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
- Having persistent thoughts and memories you can’t get out of your head
- Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
- Thinking of harming yourself or others
If we want to create a country where people have true mental health support, we need to acknowledge the unique ways that society harms individuals, and, from there, create safe spaces where people can access culturally competent care with people who can relate to their experiences.
We can start by educating ourselves about mental health, and Canada’s relationship to anti-Black racism, and we can begin to move towards a healthier, more humane country by looking out for those around us, listening to them without judgement, and remembering that anyone can struggle with their mental health and that everyone is worthy of compassion.
Building solidarity is absolutely essential if we want a future where everyone has equal access to mental health support. And it’s high time we recognize that building that future will save black lives.
Be proud of who you are and the beauty of your skin. Embrace your cultures, your languages, and your history. And remember to take care of yourself, and each other.