Mental wellbeing website founder Estar Gathu says that when it comes to mental health issues, many within BAME communities suffer in silence for fear of reprisals. The only way to address this is by being open about such issues and their root causes in the hope of changing attitudes.
By Estar Gathu
In the UK, the BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) community makes about 15% of the population, according to the Office for National Statistics. BAME is a catch-all term that covers an extremely diverse range of people with diverse cultural, religious, and social differences.
However, there are some similarities, and issues caused by the outlooks of these communities sometimes come to attention of a wider audience because of the severity or impact they have on others.
Protecting the mental wellbeing of people from BAME communities can be challenging because the majority of those facing such issues may have individual and societal challenges that affect their decision to seek help. Historically, among the British-African communities, for example, mental health problems were seen in a negative light and normally these problems were swept under the rug for fear of facing judgment. In many communities, meanwhile, mental health problems are attributed to things such as witchcraft and curses.
The good news is that by providing education and information to BAME communities, attitudes towards mental health are changing. Since 2016, I have been proud to be part of that change as the founder of online mental wellbeing and inspirational hub www.thingsihear.co.uk. As a British-African woman, I wanted to provide a resource for BAME individuals where storytelling can be used to raise awareness of, and modify attitudes towards, mental health issues. The most pressing concern on my site is to normalise talk about mental health and to end the stigmatisation of sufferers.
As the website’s name suggests, the stories it features are all based on those that have been shared with me in confidence, presented to visitors in a fictionalised (to protect the identities of those that confide in me) but still true-to-life format. Below are just some of the issues that I cover on the site, and which will hopefully one day become a thing of the past as attitudes change.
IMPOSSIBLE IMPOSITIONS ON CHILDREN
The majority of BAME communities place a particular emphasis on the importance of education. In this day and age, the traditionally ‘worthwhile’ careers no longer take centre stage yet some parents still insist on living out their dreams vicariously through their children — putting unnecessary pressure on their academic performance and ignoring their passions and talents.
They also unwittingly transfer to their children unaddressed and unhealed mental health problems. It would not be unusual to encounter children exhibiting the same mental health issues as their parents — or living in a conflict environment as they fight back against the expectations and demands of their parents.
In some instances the children suffer from mental anguish because they feel they’ve failed their parents’ expectations, they’ve failed themselves, and they don’t match up to their parents’ definition of a good child. I heard of a parent who forced his son to pursue law. The son hated law with a passion and wanted to be a chef. The idea of a chef in the eyes of the parents was one step up from a maid and so they quashed those dreams. The son dutifully went to law school, graduated, and even started an internship at a law firm. He resigned soon after without telling his parents. Long story short, he suffered from anxiety attacks every time his pregnant girlfriend broached the subject of telling his parents the truth. This was a grown man who lived in fear of disappointing his parents and when he did, he suffered for it and lived in fear and pain.
A young man checked into the A&E of a certain hospital, claiming that he’d been hit by a car. The doctors were not convinced it was an accident because his injuries were not consistent with a car collision. On closer inspection, it emerged that the young man had been severely beaten. As he was crying and explaining to the mental health workers what had happened, some relations of his came in and sat there in an intimidating way so the young man could not talk. He had, it emerged, been severely beaten for shaming his family by disrespecting them because of his sexuality. It later came out that the young man’s injuries had been sustained while attempting suicide by jumping in front of a moving vehicle.
In many communities the idea of homosexuality is still viewed as a sin and an abomination. Living openly as a gay person is not a choice for many. The psychological turmoil experienced by people as they live a double life and debate with themselves on whether to come out or not can cause trauma, anxiety, stress, and depression and even suicide. For the brave ones who choose to live their lives openly and freely, they lose their families— who are unable or unwilling to accept them as they are. They suffer abuse and mental torture within their community that can lead to severe mental health problems such as self-harm or, in worse cases, even suicide or murder.
TRADITIONS THAT FUEL THE FIRE OF INEQUALITY BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN
A young woman from a British-African community told her family that she was in love. Without her consent, traditional preparations for a marriage were underway before she could explain anything.
The family demanded a ‘bride price’ that was out of reach for her prospective in-laws. The negotiations went on for months. This was not her wish. She wanted to get married, invite her family and friends to the wedding, and start a new life with her husband. However, her family put a stop to everything until the bride price was paid. When she tried to intervene, explaining that she didn’t want such a dowry and that any money she and her husband had was for starting their new life, she was told not to interfere with matters concerning tradition.
She watched as the two families battled over her bride price, while her mental health deteriorated because her fiancé was threatening to break off the engagement. She was OK with a token amount but not a full bride price because she was not a property. In her mind, the idea of her family stipulating how much it would cost for someone to marry her insinuated that her husband-to-be was buying her like you would a car, which would lay the blueprint for married life as a relationship between property and owner. Having said that, these negotiations are fun when conducted with mutual respect and when the wishes of the prospective bride and groom are respected and considered.
In most African cultures, the idea of a bride price is the norm and has been going on since time immemorial. In modern society however, where men and women expect equal treatment in all matters, paying to have someone you love as a wife leaves a bad taste and the power is imbalanced from the outset. For young people of African origin born and raised in Britain and who don’t believe in some traditions, this can have detrimental effects on their mental health.
There is a need for mental health service providers to improve their understanding of BAME communities to provide better services to those within them. Such as improving ‘cultural competencies’ in communication skills, especially when using interpreters; meeting religious or faith-based needs; and increasing the diversity of staff.
BAME communities, meanwhile, should also take responsibility for their psychoeducation and tolerance.
Most of all, though, we need to be open about mental wellbeing issues within BAME communities. As I try to do through www.thingsihear.co.uk, we must work together and listen to each other to break taboos and myths surrounding important social issues such as homophobia, sexism, and mental health with the aim of inspiring debate and social change, improved attitudes and behaviour, and protecting those who need our help, not our condemnation.
For more information, visit www.thingsihear.co.uk. Follow Estar Gathu on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram at @thingsihear2016.