Niquita Alexander-Pilgrim, a mental health practitioner and PhD scholar funded by the Institute of Mental Health, explores the relationship between anti-Black violence in the media, Black mental health, healing and joy. Niquita is also the co-director of the grassroots community organisation The Cultural Connection.
Over the past two years, race-related suffering has dominated mass-media reporting. From the Windrush scandal to the brutal murder of George Floyd, to the current disproportionate COVID-19 death rates for people of African/African-Caribbean descent, there has been limited respite for those of us racialised as Black. In British society, our ‘Blackness’ is rarely deemed as compatible with an ‘authentic’ British identity. Unless, of course, we are engaging in an activity that benefits wider society, such as scoring goals in the Euros or becoming an Olympic champion. The near-constant mass media circulation of anti-Black violence and suffering, frankly, deprives our minds of annual leave! We have no opportunity to take a break from experiencing racism. Exposure to traumatic images often causes the mind to respond as though a person has been a first-hand witness to the tragic event. This response manifests in different ways and for some, it can lead to panic attacks, insomnia, low motivation, flashbacks or becoming socially withdrawn.[i] Therefore, isn’t it evitable that this unwarranted exposure to extreme physical and systemic racial violence will have detrimental mental health effects? Our psychological defence mechanisms are regularly working overtime in an attempt to prevent racial trauma from impacting our mental health. However, it gets to a point where these defence systems burn out and quite frankly, I am—we are — tired. Mentally, physically, spiritually, T-I-R-E-D.
I exist in a society in which racism exacerbates my risk of experiencing mental ill health. Once I build up the courage to seek support, I will then be faced with mental health treatment options that racialize me and seek to rectify my apparent internal dysfunctions in ways that cohere with normative ‘whiteness.’ Too often, racial categorisation – encompassing the inconsistent grouping together of people who have a similar skin tone – is understood as a determinant of mental health while the nuances of a person’s identity and sense of self is overlooked. In my research, I delve into the limitations of using racial categorisations and western ideologies to gain an ‘authentic’ understanding of issues of identity and the role that they play in the mental health experiences of people of African/African-Caribbean descent. Located within a decolonial framework underpinned by the fields of psychiatry, psychology, critical race theory, and African-centred philosophy, my research argues that the racialisation of people of African/African-Caribbean descent to fixed identity markers (dominated by skin colour) may cause conflict with our sense of identity and belonging due to our relationship to wider cultural and ancestral connections. Belonging is a complex feeling and experience which can draw upon traditional social categorisations such as race, nationality, and socioeconomic status, but also on other associations and affiliations that transcend the fixed categories imposed on us by hegemonic social constructs. Our sense of belonging is a central component to our ability to live a fulfilled life, and failure to meet this basic human need may have mental health implications that can either cause direct mental health problems or create situations conducive to the emergence of mental illness. Overall, I am interested in how people of African/African-Caribbean descent who are in need of mental health support can be helped to feel more ‘at home’ as a route to better mental wellbeing.
One way I propose that this could be achieved is through psychosocial therapeutic interventions which incorporate African-centred philosophy as an alternative, or supplement to, therapies which may be blind or indifferent to ‘Blackness’ and its complex relationship with mental health. While ‘African philosophy’ is obviously a wide and complex field, I think there could be benefits to embracing its multifaceted nature and, as John Mbiti argues, the ‘understanding, attitude of mind, logic, and perception behind the manner in which African peoples think, act or speak in different life situations’ (Mbiti 1990, p.2).[ii] Traditional psychosocial approaches explore the interactions between psychological and social factors, for example the relationship between a person’s individual thoughts, behaviours, and their social environment and the way in which this interplay influences a person’s mental health and their ability to function. However, traditional psychosocial theories do not account for the experiences of people who have multicultural identities, such as British-born people of African/African-Caribbean descent whose ancestral traditions alongside British cultural influences, may affect their thoughts, behaviours, and social experiences.
The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme has been widely recognised as one of the most impactful psychosocial talking therapies programme for adult anxiety disorders and depression.[iii] The data collected on the programme in 2019 and 2020 shows that there has been an increase in referrals of people of African Caribbean descent compared to the data in 2018/2019. People of African-Caribbean descent are shown to have a consistently higher rate of referral compare to their white British/Irish counterparts; yet, those in white ethnicity groups were more likely to complete the course of treatment in addition to having higher rates of recovery from the mental illness.[iv] These outcomes evidence that improvement is required to increase the levels of engagement and improved status in the mental health of people of African Caribbean descent who require psychosocial interventions. To date, there is a sparsity of mental health studies that have included community groups who incorporate African-centred methods of mental health intervention for people racialised as Black. Thus, the capacity to create meaningful studies and findings that inform best practice for our community remains limited and redirects back to giving precedence to western knowledge as the foundation from which the mental health experiences of people of African/African-Caribbean descent are understood. Accordingly, my research includes an exploration of community-based African-centred mental health interventions in the UK including Healing Justice London, The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network and the Culturally-Adapted Family Intervention Study (CaFI) to evidence how three core tenets of African-centred philosophy— spirituality, collectivity and interrelatedness—can be applied in practice to support people of African/African Caribbean descent to cultivate healing when faced with challenges to our mental health in the form of racism. I also consider the mental toll of the forms of resistance and activism we often undertake to counter racism.
It is my hope that through new approaches to mental health which address ‘Black’ identity in all its complexity, we can collectively and unapologetically heal and experience joy!
[i] Hopwood, T.L., Schutte, N.S. and Loi, N.M., 2019. Stress responses to secondary trauma: Compassion fatigue and anticipatory traumatic reaction among youth workers. The Social Science Journal, 56(3), pp.337-348.
[i] Feinstein, A., Audet, B. and Waknine, E., 2014. Witnessing images of extreme violence: a psychological study of journalists in the newsroom. JRSM open, 5(8), p.2054270414533323.
[i] Tynes, B.M., Willis, H.A., Stewart, A.M. and Hamilton, M.W., 2019. Race-related traumatic events online and mental health among adolescents of color. Journal of Adolescent Health, 65(3), pp.371-377.
[ii] Mbiti, J.S. 1990. African religions & philosophy. Heinemann.
[iii] NHS England, 2021. Adult improving access to Psychological therapies programme [online] Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/mental-health/adults/iapt/
[iv] Baker, C., 2020. Mental health statistics for England: prevalence, services and funding.