The Deadly Silence of Depression
In the African Diaspora we give ourselves the silent treatment.
It is not uncommon to come across one of those chain mail Facebook status updates about depression and mental health. In which those of us suffering with it or who have done so in the past are said to be, ‘the strongest and most resilient because this is what dealing with a mental health issue means.’ Or the update daring that, ‘you won’t cut and paste it to your page because you are too ashamed, afraid or uncaring.’ While not entirely helpful, nor completely damaging it is in its crude attempt addressing the taboo of being outspoken on the issue.
There are many reasons why people develop periods of depression. It could be mental, emotional, chemical imbalance, environment, toxicity, triggered by life events or natural changes as we mature. In reference to the depression that stems from this type of or set of circumstances, rather than clinical depression and the more serious illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar, I’m interested in the unique perspective and experience of the Black African community in the UK. Living our lives in city environments that are perhaps not entirely suited to our physiology, all of which has a baring on how we talk or do not talk about depression, seek help for and live with it as individuals, families and as a community.
The convenience of city life is undeniable, with easy access to transport on London Underground for example, bus convoys that streak the streets bright red, black taxis turning circles, ubers and bikes to rent. Eateries to fill your belly from fast food to fine dining, almost twenty-four hours a day if you know where to order. There are theatres for movies and for stage plays, there are galleries, museums and hundreds of pubs, clubs and bars to wash it all down with. Holding down a nine-to-five job for the privilege of paying for it all, it can become, let’s say fairly hectic. The potential of a trigger that might affect the mental health of someone who may be susceptible could be just around the corner.
I have been known to travel to warmer, less bustling foreign destinations. Or at least the bustle of the town market in Mombasa will have an entirely different character. On more than one occasion I have noticed how after a few days, I begin to feel transformed from the way I have to hold myself against the steam of a western city. I don’t mean the familiar let go and leave behind from the stress of London when you go on holiday for a few weeks. I’m talking about the alchemy in the connection with natural habitat. The warmth of the sun’s heat, the green of the flora and fauna, the white sands and the sound of the ocean if you’re lucky to be near a beach. It metaphysically alters your relationship with self, the experience of your life and place in the world. Hair becomes naturally moisturised, skin glows and eyes sparkle. The environment compliments my physiology in ways that the more often than not, grey skies and paved streets in the city simply do not.
Our mental and emotional well-being is the foundation for most if not all other achievements in our lives. For simply being able to live a purposeful life, whether it is explicit or otherwise. When it comes to Black African people in the UK, the African Health and Policy Network (AHPN) acknowledges that 1 in 4 will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. However the Mental Health Foundation, report that generally, this same demographic are not well served by mainstream mental health services.
Medication or being treated under a section of the mental health act are more likely to be offered or implemented than any talking therapy. Treatment may be coercive and accurate diagnoses impaired by ‘dangerous stereotypes that the beliefs and behaviours of non-white people are sometimes pathologised as a manifestation of mental illness.’ Furthermore, the mental health system is predicated on symptoms and cures, that might have adverse affects on those with protected characteristics, which would include Black Africans.
I have anecdotal evidence from a family member working within the prison system in mental health, that it was not unusual for her be instructed to administer larger doses of medication to Black African prisoners. Furthermore, in these settings being over-represented in high and medium secure units and prisons is common. These statistics and anecdotes are about mental health as a whole, not just depression and so will take into account schizophrenia, with which Black African’s are disproportionately diagnosed, and other more serious illnesses. However, it has provided a foundation for enquiring into the experiences and perspectives on depression and how it is dealt with in families and the community.
A fear of being stigmatised and even so far as being protective of the family unit to the same end, keeps us suffering in silence. More likely to approach the GP than family or friends, on a survey carried out by AHPN, fifty per cent of respondents indicated turning to a faith or community group. The church may well be considered a viable and safe place in times of need and where depression or mental health is an issue. Unfortunately, the fear of being judged can be too great or indeed exacerbate symptoms. There are erroneous beliefs that there is no cure and so the sufferer may fear disclosing how they are feeling, gravely concerned they will never recover from the debilitating affects. Those seeking support have been advised to pray about it, ignore it or strongly advised in the belief that depression does not exist. Signposting to professional help could have in some cases saved lives.
It’s quite remarkable that mental health care was only recently put on par with physical health in terms of how it is tackled in society.
Acknowledged in government White Papers in 2010 and 2011 with strategies for improvement, is relatively not that long ago. Depression is of course much more established than that, but this goes to show that if those who are appointed to be our guides and leaders in society are not openly addressing certain issues, what good can come from such examples?
With most concerns in life that are threatened with being suppressed, art, culture and literature become legitimate outlets for expression and activism. The Great African Horror is a series of photographic portraits by an artist out of Cape Town, South Africa. Thembela ‘Nymless’ Ngayi chose to document his tragic experience of losing a friend who had committed suicide. The illness was hidden and so undiagnosed. The photo-narrative depicts how men’s depression can devastate family, friends and its ultimate affect on the community. Rather than focus on the notions of ‘witch craft’ or ‘bad luck,’ the photographer focuses on the perspective of the sufferer, the male in this case. The way family and society treats him and the expectations to demonstrate strength and an ability to cope in all life situations is the kind of pressure that tips what could be a treatable illness into a devastating one. This is just one example of how mental health issues can be expressed in the arts, but there are many more.
I have also had my fair share of having to overcome the dark moods of depression. After having my son, a challenging period of post-partum depression set the scene for a route to recovery. My partner came home with St. John’s Wort from Holland and Barrett one evening on good authority that it would help. It didn’t. The sleepless nights prevailed and the mornings when I would get my son ready, take him to nursery, return home and lay on the sofa barely breathing with the television churning out some mind-numbing day time serving. A match made in some kind of hell.
There were the strangest thoughts that would grow like cancers, for instance I’d read something online about how a lack of facial expression from the mother can negatively impact the child. I would resolve that come what may I would smile and be animated. Despite the effort I would be unable to in any real way. The anxiety about the perceived damage I was doing to him would grow and the guilt and all the feelings of the dark cloud would threaten to take over completely.
We went along to the GP who prescribed me a brand of antidepressant. It wasn’t Prozac, but one of the then fairly new serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They got me off the sofa, but I felt decidedly odd for the month that I took them and so I stopped, which you should absolutely never do. They are supposed to be slowly reduced after the full course of the prescription. I went into a very uncomfortable withdrawal and went back to the GP who in hindsight was shocked that I had done such a thing and calmly advised me not to take anymore.
The idea of taking pills was somehow unsettling for me in a different way to the depression itself. It was quite shocking and despite the adverse circumstances it motivated my recovery. I did not want to take pills to get better or be in that position again so my only alternative was to get well. I joined the gym, read self-help books of which Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now was most significant and helpful. I soon realised that I was once again easily smiling with my son and began again to enjoy motherhood. Twelve years later the triple whammy of my father passing away, the breakdown of my relationship and challenging behaviour from said son, now a teenager had me facing depression again. This time I healed myself with food by way of juicing and a strict raw vegan diet. This, however, is a story for another day. I am also in no way advocating trying to heal yourself, this is my story and yours will be different. There is help out there and your GP is a good place to start.
Mental health is a huge subject with many facets, different types of illnesses that affect individuals in varying ways, one of which is depression. In the African Diaspora we give ourselves the silent treatment. It is a dangerous situation that pervades the connection with one another. If we can come together at our weddings, christenings and ninetieth birthday celebrations, we must also do so in our darkest hour, when matters in faith and Christianity, business and finance or bereavement challenge us. This creates a strong connection within the Diaspora. Awareness is all, and then the action can start from a foundation of knowledge, connection and community.
See www.mind.org.uk for further information about mental wellness.
www.recovr.co.uk is mental health provision for young African and Black people, available soon.
About the author
Esther Poyer is a Life Coach, Entrepreneur and Writer