It’s been almost two months since we’ve launched the Let’s Talk Fam project. We are already so grateful for the positivity we have received (including an exciting retweet from Stormzy himself!) but one question keeps reappearing: why are you focusing on BAME men and mental health?
We’ve thought long and hard about how to answer this question. Of course, mental health is important for everyone and in a perfect world we would not have to separate and target mental health support based on race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic background or any other social groupings. But we do not live in a perfect world. Unfortunately, as 2019 draws to a close, these factors are very relevant to the way a person’s life will unfold and this extends to our mental health too.
In the post below, we are going to explore reasons for focusing on members of the BAME community (and the controversies around using this label). We will also explain why our focus is on men and the relationship between race, masculinity and mental health.
‘Why aren’t you including white people?’
Firstly, we are not excluding white people. Focusing your support towards BAME men, does not in any way take away from the support available to men and women of Caucasian heritage. We are not replacing or displacing other forms of support, merely trying to create a safer space for people who have, so far, been marginalised and ignored. This leads to a broader point, by the way. Giving support and attention to one group of people does not take away from another group. Even if it did, would it hurt your white privilege so much to share?
Broadly speaking, the statistics are clear; BAME groups are at a higher risk of developing ill mental health. As non-caucasian groups are desperately under-researched, the specific statistics are difficult to validate. Some studies report that black British women are at the highest risk of developing an anxiety-related disorder (e.g. PTSD) whereas others present research which shows that black men are 6 times more likely than white men to be forcibly detained based on mental health (i.e. enter the health system via the justice system), 29% more likely to experience physical restraint and 50% more likely than their white counterparts to be diagnosed with psychosis. Whether these statistics reflect a systemic bias and prejudice in how people of colour are treated when it comes to mental health, or whether they reflect an inherent increased vulnerability to mental health is difficult to judge based on the limited research available. In all honesty, there is truth to both interpretations.
It is also important to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Both everyday and institutionalised racism is very much present in our society. It isn’t even hidden or thinly veiled anymore! Boris Johnson ‘light-heartedly’ comparing women in burqas to letter boxes? The media criticism of Rahem Sterling who bought an expensive property for his mother, despite the approval towards a white footballer who did the exact same thing? Don’t even get us started on the backlash towards Stormzy for having the audacity to openly acknowledge that there is “100%” racism in Britain. Just 10 minutes in that Twitter storm was enough to prove him right…
Racism is a triggering factor for mental health that is rarely considered with enough depth and understanding. The psychological, emotional and even physical strain that you might experience as a result of constantly feeling the need to prove yourself, to constantly defend yourself or even just protect yourself from the hate, aggression and ignorance being projected on to you, as a non-white person, is significant. Do not let people sweep it to the side as ‘the race card’. I’d be curious to know whether these same people get looked at differently on public transport or in shops? Do they get double-takes at passport control? Or get people making awkward ‘racial’ references to show how woke they are around you? If not, they don’t get to comment on the race card or minimise the experience of race as an ‘othering’ factor. They don’t have the right to judge how race and grouping can grind away at your mental health.
There is a growing body of research to support the links between made between the experiences of racism and poor mental health. Not only do individuals who experience racism have higher likelihoods of experiencing anxiety and depression, but there is also a correlation between these experiences and more severe diagnoses e.g. psychosis. I’m sure we don’t need to explain the link. Just as with any trauma, stressful event or series of events, your self-esteem and mental health can be compromised. Of course, the stress induced by these experiences can also have a harmful physical impact.
By definition, the conversations around mental health and the experiences of racism are guided (or at least they should be) by people who have a direct experience of this. This does not exclude white men from the conversation, but merely displaces them from the centre of the conversation. If this is difficult, we apologise. But it is necessary.
‘Why are you focusing on men?’
A valid question that we have been asked is ‘why focus on men?’ For more general statistics on men’s mental health you can jump to the Facts Only page. But if the question is about why the focus is on BAME men, as opposed to BAME women our answer is apologetically simple.
Firstly, healthy men should create better spaces for women. Healthy men provide better relationships with women. Healthy men make for better co-workers. Healthy men create better fathers, brothers, uncles and sons. Healthy men manage their insecurities so that they do not need to dominate. Healthy men talk, and are more comfortable to support others. So much of the challenges that women, especially women of colour, face can be traced to their experiences with men (both on a micro and macro level). If we can work to create better, more psychologically and emotionally healthy men, this can only be a positive thing for women too.
Secondly, there is a growing space for women of colour (and we will return to problematic terms like this later) to share experiences and raise awareness of the psychological impact of being a non-white woman: recent examples include Candice Carty-Williams’ ‘Queenie’ and non-fiction works such as ‘Taking Up Space’ by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi. This is, of course, a vital and significant milestone for a black-female voice and perspective which history has silenced. Whilst this is a space to empower, there are fewer spaces which make it safe for men to be vulnerable. There are more people are using their voices to talk about male mental health (e.g. @santandave and @ramonerochester) but there is a gap in terms of showing men how to do this. As we have said before, our focus on men does not detract from the support and space which should be afforded to our female (or non-binary) counterparts.
Our reason for focusing on men is cross-sectional. Just as crossing gender and race has resulted in compounding issues for women of ethnic minority heritage in western society, crossing westernised concepts of masculinity with racialised life experience has been catastrophically damaging for men of Caribbean, African, Arabic, Asian and mixed heritage.
Race, masculinity and mental health
Let’s not underestimate the impact of race and family on perceptions of masculinity. Following extensive discussions with men and adolescents from a range of backgrounds the following factors were most relevant to what a man is supposed to be:
- Education, preferably post-graduate study.
- Job. More specifically, the salary associated with your job.
- Strength. Physical strength. Emotional strength. Psychological strength. All of which involves being silent by the way. Handling your business on your own is the ultimate show of strength.
- Dominance. Within your family, within your relationship, your social groups and at work. You need to show that you can be in charge and handle responsibility. Another way of putting this might be status.
- Keep things private. You cannot let people from other families see anything that goes wrong in your life or your family. How things look from the outside is sometimes considered more important than the truth.
- Always being right. Even if you make a mistake, you make it look like this was intentional or someone else’s responsibility. If you show your weakness, you could compromise your status and dominance. You might recognise this in your dad…
- Eating a lot! Having a big appetite and being able to keep eating is often a signifier of masculinity. This might perhaps translate into westernised drinking culture, the idea being the better you handle your drink the more masculine you are.
You might argue that a lot of these factors could be associated with the ‘toxic masculinity’ labels that we are used to. So how is this experience different for a man of colour? Consider that in any given situation, you may be outnumbered as a person of colour. You feel the need to adhere to the social norms to ingratiate yourself and achieve acknowledgment and acceptance. This might result in a hyper-expression of these forms of masculinity. In other words, men of colour might feel a need (consciously or subconsciously) to overcompensate these signs of masculinity to fit into spaces that they otherwise feel uncomfortable in.
An additional layer of complexity here is that men of colour are often caught in a difficult position; trying to prove your masculinity in the ‘traditional’ senses, whilst also trying to subvert the racialised stereotypes society puts on you. This builds an additional layer of stress in everyday life. How can you illustrate your masculinity whilst also subverting the expectation that you are aggressive or a criminal? Or maintain your masculine identity whilst subverting people’s assumptions that you are misogynist or a religious extremist? How do you begin figuring out your masculinity whilst also trying to prove that you’re not a gang-banger just because you’re wearing a tracksuit? In an age where masculinity is (rightly) under the microscope, figuring out how to be a man according to all these different expectations is just one of the ways that race and gender cross to create challenges for our mental health.
Religion and cultural beliefs are another factor which cannot be minimised when exploring the experience of mental health for people from more traditional backgrounds. For example, older people from Middle Eastern cultures can misunderstand mental health. They might tell you to pray your issues away, work harder, ignore it or simply be told to get over yourself and remember that there are bigger issues in the world than what you are experiencing. In West African cultures elements of psychosis may be considered punishments or spiritual deviation. In South Asian cultures, mental health issues are often simply swept under the carpet because they are considered so shameful. The common denominator is that mental health is a taboo across our cultures. If you mix this with the pressures to be masculine.
‘What’s wrong with the BAME label?’
Throughout this post (and our campaign) we have used the term BAME when referring to the ethnicity of our young men. Whilst this can be a useful label, it is not without controversy. To be clear, BAME is an acronym for ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicities’. ‘People of colour’ is also a widely-used label which homogenises anybody not of wholly caucasian heritage.
The negatives? These labels seem to contribute to the centralising of the white experience. In other words, you’re either white or non-white. Would it work the same if we had a label for black and non-black people? Or Asian and non-Asian?
Additionally, It’s quite offensive to group all non-white communities, traditions, heritage and ethnicities into one large group, ignoring the wide ranging differences between our communities.
Thirdly, the broad labels ignore the differences between the experiences of racism between communities. One might argue that the experiences of racism might be different for a Pakistani man than a Nigerian man, which itself might be different to that of a Moroccan man, or Somalian man, or Jamaican or Iranian. Reducing these experiences to ‘non-white’ does not take into account these nuances in culture and experience, which stops us from really understanding the relationship between race, masculinity and mental health.
The positives? These labels can create a sense of unity between communities who have been consistently marginalised and separated for millenia. Whilst there are significant differences between the racialised experiences that we have, there is some comfort in knowing that others may understand the psychological impact of those experiences. Even if the social or physical experience itself is different, you may share the emotional or psychological experience.
Finally, there is power in recognising the struggles of others. If you cannot find comfort or support in your own community, you may find it elsewhere. We all have our own cultural identity, and should be proud of that. We are also minorities in a predominantly white society. This is not the time to separate and fall into the trap of fighting amongst ourselves or competing for who is the most oppressed. This is the time to recognise each other’s issues, supporting each other’s progress and creating a safe space for men of a wide range of backgrounds to explore who they are and improve their mental health.
Whilst the label of BAME is far from perfect, we are aiming to use it as an inclusive label to open the conversation about race, masculinity and mental health. We recognise that it can be reductive, but we chose to use it as an open and welcoming label to anyone who feels marginalised. We have chosen to group together to reclaim the space that we are owed, and we choose to create space to support each and every ethnicity and race.
What can I do to help?
So, how can you support the BAME men in your life? Firstly, you can just listen. Do not try to dominate the conversation, or try to fix things, but simply listen and receive the experience being told to you.
Secondly, you can check yourself whenever you feel yourself acting based on a racial/ gendered stereotype (we all do it, just be honest with yourself).
Thirdly, you can go to the Talk page to look for more resources and helplines to find advice.
Finally, you can follow us on Twitter and Instagram for more updates, posts and media. Get in touch to share your experiences with us. We can direct you to existing networks such as the BIPP (BAME in Psychology and Psychiatry) who host events in London. The more we talk about mental health, the less difficult it becomes.