Mental HealthSocial Issues

The Black Sheep: Mental Illness in the Black Community

I grew up and currently live in the Region of Durham. It’s about a 30 minute drive to Toronto, depending on where in the Region you live, the further north you live the longer the drive. Around 700,000 people live here and call Durham Region their home. It has certainly developed over the years. Gone are the days when I could step out my door, hop a fence and go tobogganing down the hilly fields in the city of Ajax which is now covered with big box stores and new residences. Not only has the Region developed with new communities and commercial developments, but it’s also seen an increase in diversity. Approximately 140,000 of the Durham Region population consists of people who self-identify as a member of a “visible minority,” with 95,000 of those individuals being Black, the largest visible minority group in Durham Region. The city of Ajax has the highest population of Blacks, followed by Pickering and Whitby. None of this is surprising to me since you can go on a bus in Ajax or visit Costco…better yet, Walmart to see for yourself. 

The Black Sheep: Mental Illness in the Black Community

So, my question is, with Blacks constituting a large percentage of the Durham population, then why aren’t there any Mental Health Services geared towards them? If we were to dig deeper, where is the support is for the more mature in age Black individuals?

My friend expressed her concerns and asked me to do some research. I immediately started jotting notes and found myself stumped and shocked. I had gotten so used to frequently being the only Black female speaking at events and accessing Mental Health Services that

I almost forgot about the need and the lack thereof.
I almost forgot why so many Black females, both young and old, would reach out to me for support.
I almost forgot why I found myself having to constantly explain my actions and appearance to mental health professionals because of the lack of understanding.
I almost forgot why growing up as a Black kid my behaviour was so quick to be dismissed and labelled “behavioural”.
I almost forgot what it was like to be “The Black Sheep”.

I decided to focus my research on the Durham Region since it’s always easier to write about a place you’ve lived in. I looked at all of the agencies in Durham that were currently offering mental health services to see if they had any programs geared towards individuals who identified as Black… and I found none. Instead, I found a plethora of agencies that offered translators for the Asian and South Asian population, programs and services tailored for the LGBTQ community and agencies directed at individuals with Islamic beliefs or who come from a Middle Eastern background. Unlike the City of Toronto and its surrounding regions, Durham doesn’t offer the African & Caribbean Descent Program by the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health. Why is Durham kept out of the loop? I think we can agree that not all specialized mental health programs and services offered in Durham are perfect but at least they’re there as an option. 

The Black Sheep: Mental Illness in the Black Community

I spoke with an employee of Durham Mental Health Services about this. Since, I wanted to receive input from someone who isn’t a “visible minority” and with whom I have a good rapport in. She agreed that there wasn’t really any knowledge about Black culture and that many people don’t even understand the difference between African and Caribbean culture.

“Well if you stick me in a room full of males to talk about female stuff – of course, I would feel uncomfortable! However, it’s not about segregation, it’s about comfort. We don’t specifically need to have this group here and this group there, but we can at least make sure there is some form of comfort which is basically awareness.” ~ DMHS Employee

You can never fully understand an individual but you can at least try. I often wonder if the reason why there is a lack of understanding about mental illness in the Black community is because it is rarely spoken about at all! It certainly isn’t anything new, but, it has been suppressed generation after generation. This fear of not wanting others, including our own families, to know of our business and always wanting to appear strong, independent and capable, is hurting our community. “We were raised in a ‘shhhhh’ age,” says my friend. “You don’t dare talk or [you] get your ass bust.”

A lot of this shame has to do with history. Slavery brought a lot of discrimination and racism which still affects individuals in the Black community today. I hate it when I’m at my local Winners shopping and employees are following me around or triple (yes triple) checking my items at the fitting room. Or when I exit a store and fear that the alarm will go off even though I haven’t taken anything. So frequently, we are negatively labelled in the Black community – thanks to media and ignorance, that the thought of having another label, even if that label is an illness, brings shame. We also need to realize how much our family history has affected us. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate based on age or generation. The silence of some of our grandparents affected our parents which in turn affected us. It becomes a generational chain of silence and hurt that won’t break until someone talks.

Thankfully, I am seeing more and more Black youth break this chain of silence, however I am still concerned for the more mature in age and seniors.

“I feel like that’s a generation being missed… like everything now is just aimed towards the millennials but what about the women coming from a different generation? How much of that silence is heredity or a nurture thing? We are too old to be young… too young to be old” ~ Anonymous 

I have always been aware of the age gap in mental health services, but I have failed to put myself in the shoes of a mature or senior black individual trying to access these services.  It’s not until now that I start to think about the impact I probably have had while having conversations with older Ontario Shores patients of Caribbean descent. Conversations about “back home”, foods they longed to have, what hair products they think they should use or simply burning Gospel music CDs for them to enjoy on their personal time. Unfortunately, this is the generation that doesn’t “hold a banner” to advertise their mental health issues. Where is their support?

The Black Sheep: Mental Illness in the Black Community

If you are an immigrant from the Caribbean or Africa, it’s highly likely that your support came from The Church. Historically, many of our ancestors and family members who immigrated to Canada found support in The Church. Unfortunately, The Church hasn’t always been the best advocate for mental illness, preaching about beliefs of its demonic attachments. A lot of the time, our ancestors and family members who were and still are living with a mental illness wouldn’t say anything in fear of being rebuked or being seen as a demon. They were also encouraged to use “faith-based healing” instead of medical support.

As a young Black woman, I wonder how much shame, history and lack of awareness and support have contributed to my well-being? If the region I call home decided to offer a program geared towards the Black community, would things be perfect? Absolutely not. Would things start to change? Of course. I think the sense of belonging and understanding would bring about change.

Realizing and accepting that you are not the only Black individual living with a mental illness can help break that generational silence and offer a lot of healing in our community.

So where do we go from here?

Education
Service
Awareness

Whether it’s a support group, culturally sensitive peer support in hospital agencies and programs.

Just know that it starts with you.
It starts with our community.

You have a voice.
You are not alone.

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The Black Sheep: Mental Illness in the Black Community