Sunday 16 February 2020

Mental Health as a BAME Student

This person remembers the day they told their mother that they struggle with their mental health and shares their experience of dealing with the stigma around mental health problems. 

- Anonymous

Disclosing to my mum

It is a snap decision. Today is the day. I shiver as I pick up my mug and coffee splashes everywhere. I wipe the split coffee with a tissue and stutter an apology to my therapy group. Time drags by slowly and with every second, the anxiety stewing inside of me grows. During the break, shaking, I pick up my phone and dart outside. I wobble as I dial my mum’s phone number and wait for her to pick up. No response… I breathe a sigh of relieve—the universe has spoken, and this isn’t the right time at all. I start to head back inside… my phone rings. Mum. Crap!

—“Um, I need to tell you something mum,” I mutter.
—“What is it?” she asks.
—“Mum, I have an eating disorder. And – and – and, I am on antidepressants and I started therapy two months ago...” I blurt.

My mum asks me what an eating disorder is, and I explain. I tell her about all my secret behaviours; the compulsive exercising and restriction. She listens and tells me that antidepressants are not good; “they make people crazy”. Then she prays that I get better soon. I thank her and cut off.

…One and a half years later...

We haven’t talked about it since. However, she points out my weight gain; apparently, I should exercise more when I am at university and eat fewer fatty foods. It hurts. It almost destabilised my recovery.

I sometimes get angry at my situation. Since the age of ten, something has felt “wrong.” I spent my childhood lost in a dark place. It should have been picked up. I should have felt able to open up about my emotions. I should have had therapy. I was let down.

However, I do not blame my mother. She was born in West Africa. She was raised in abject poverty and famine. Her childhood was walking several miles to school in battered shoes; selling food at the local market and looking after her many siblings. She starved and had to make many sacrifices. Her life was hard, but she survived. On the other hand, growing up, I had food, water and shelter. I was British and “spoilt.” What did I have to complain about in comparison? What did I have to be sad about?

Fighting mental health stigma

To my mum, my struggle with mental health problems was not a “real” issue, but rather an exaggeration and attention-seeking. My parents hold stigmatising views of mental illness. They use the category “hysterical women” and describe mental illness as “possession by evil spirits and devils”. They label misbehaving children, people with learning disabilities and quite frankly, anyone who deviates from societal norms as “crazy”.

Recently, the perception of mental health is shifting among my parents’ communities. There has been more acknowledgement that mental health conditions are “real.” Research into mental health and people’s perceptions of mental health is also growing in their countries of birth. In fact, following the traumatic kidnapping of the schoolgirls by Boku Haram, some girls who escaped were given therapy. However, society as a whole is still fighting stigma related to mental health problems. Amongst some of the older generation, people with mental health problems are still labelled as “attention-seeking” and “crazy”. Such stigma creates additional barriers for me and many other young people to receive much-needed supports from their close family.

It is so difficult pretending that I am “good”, when actually, I am having panic attacks every day. It is hard being torn between the need to gain understanding from my parents and the reality of hiding my anti-depressants from my parents. I get frustrated when my parents make comments about how I am getting anxious or crying over very small things. Regardless, I try to educate my parents about mental health. I explain the pressures that young people face and that my anti-depressants actually stabilise me. I insist that struggling with my mental health does not mean I am weak. And I think, little by little, the message is sinking in.

To learn more about the individual and societal challenges facing members of BAME communities, check out this resource compiled by the Mental Health Foundation. 

Information about support for you is available on the Student Minds website

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