This New Documentary Unmasks the Taboo of Black Mental Illness

Tsoku Maela, “Auxin”

When it comes to mental health, we assume any type of struggle in that vein to be a sign of weakness. Not just within the mainstream of society, but even more in the black community. Why is that? The mind is perhaps the most important part of our anatomy. In fact, serotonin–a neurotransmitter which regulates mood and is manufactured in the brain and intestines–plays a key role in the nervous system and other organs. A function this imperative shouldn’t be dismissed with the response to just “pray depression away.”

26-year-old London writer, Keith Dube, sought to counter this ancient retort and stigma. In his new BBC Three documentary, Being Black, Going Crazy?, he sheds light on the crisis by showcasing black people affected by a variety of mental illnesses. His interest in the epidemic among blacks in Britain derives from his own struggle with depression. In an interview with The Fader, he said:

“When I moved to London [at 18] I got into a few things that I shouldn’t have been getting into, which led to my struggles with mental health. I had a decent childhood, but my relationship with my dad was difficult. We lived together but we didn’t really know each other. I was trying to find my sense of family elsewhere. I was doing criminal shit. Later, I started selling drugs for a little bit. I was the worst drug dealer in the world. I nearly got killed over £300, and that’s when I decided to give up and get my life together. I went to my doctor and I told him, I’ve been going through some shit. When I’m supposed to be happy, I’m not happy. I’m constantly down, I don’t want to leave my house. My motivation levels were at zero. I’d lost so much weight. I’d reached a point where something had to give.”

Tsoku Maela, “Seriti”

He reached a break through and became pro-active about his health by scheduling a visit with a physician. But unfortunately, in the fashion of western medicine, a vague and half attentive solution was given:

[At first] the doctor prescribed medication without really understanding my problems. It was like, Wow, you don’t even know what’s going on with me. I told him I was in pain, and we had spoken about what was bugging me, but he was too quick to just throw medicine at me. I wanted to deal with what was going on in my life. The doctor then recommended me to a therapist that changed my life, essentially. It’s what I needed at the time.

Soon after his turning point, Dube packed his belongings and moved to Australia. He became vigilant about assisting his community with their struggles by writing a book and then tackling the makings of Being Black, Going Crazy? There was a pattern in his findings. Being a black male in Britain means you are 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness and also 6 times more likely to become an inpatient at a mental health facility.

“When we saw the numbers, I thought it was outright racism. But, as we went on, we discovered a lot of black people report their issues a whole lot later. If me and you go through mental health issues at the same age, but you report your issues at 12 and I wait until I’m 28 to report mine, our problems are at different stages — mine will be a lot further gone, because you’ve started dealing with yours earlier. It’s not even that we have worse mental health issues, it’s because of the taboo in the community. Most people don’t talk about it. Their issues fester, and that’s how it leads to problems like sectioning.”

Tsoku Maela, “Beleaguard”

The taboo in Britain’s black community is just one piece of the global black experience. It extends here in America as well. Since European ships hit African shores, black men, women and children, have conditioned themselves to bear through the atrocities of genocide, the amputation of their family trees and culture, rape, abuse, harsh living conditions and other features from the twisted jaws of slavery. That experience manifested into praying through lynchings, marching against segregation, police brutality, arson, standing ground with sit-ins, more rape, more murder and more assault. Flash forward to today and we are still praying as we live in old racist systems of law and institutions. We pray as we watch someone like us gunned down in the street with his hands up. And still, even through the trauma we stand firm in our faith, hoping our weariness will be washed away. I believe in the power of prayer, but I also know faith without works is dead. Works without faith, is also dead. The two are synonymous. To tackle mental illness we must add acknowledgment, advocacy and professional help to the solution. Keith Dube believes this to be true as well:

“When it comes to mental health, there’s often a lack of understanding. It’s trying to treat an African problem with a white person’s manual. We are very different. In the film, I pressed on the idea of focusing on religion, because I’ve seen the situation where a lot of African churches will push people away from [medical] help. They’ll tell people, ‘Pray, pray, pray.’ But I think to myself, You can’t pray away schizophrenia. This person might have bipolar [disorder]. They might need medication. Don’t get me wrong, I know that people need prayer too — but there should be a balance.”

To read the rest of Keith Dube’s interview, click here. Be sure to also stream his documentary, which can also be found online at BBC Three.

If you are experiencing anxiety, depression or any other facet of psychosis please visit your local doctor for help or reach out to The National Alliance of Mental Illness at: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or info@nami.org.

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About

When she's not getting lost in fantastical worlds with the fictional characters she writes, Tia tends to lead something of a normal life. She enjoys the hours of her day by sifting through comics at her local comic book shop, blogging as a pop culture analyst, writing multicultural fantasy, watching "Tangled" and One Direction videos on repeat with her toddler, playing air guitar to Thin Lizzy, connecting life with '90s film quotes and finding new ways to sneak a bite of pizza when she knows she shouldn't. You can find her tweeting here and there, @tatixtia.

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