Mental health within ethnic minorities and
why #KindnessMatters

22 May 2020

As Stephen Parkinson wrote earlier this week, we are using this week to support #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and specifically the theme of kindness at Kingsley Napley.

As a black woman, mental health is a topic that has long both interested and troubled me. Specifically, why is mental health still reported to be taboo within ethnic communities? This is obviously a complex topic and I do not in any way profess to be an expert.

In 2019, the Mental Health Foundation reported on the mental health of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, noting that it is especially important because people from our community also ‘often face individual and societal challenges that can affect access to healthcare and overall mental and physical health’. The report noted some of the key issues which affect the mental health of ethnic minorities, including:

  • Racism and discrimination
  • Social and economic inequalities
  • Mental health stigma
  • Interaction with the criminal justice system

As a lawyer, I know all too well that there is much work to be done within the criminal justice system, especially in relation to the under-representation of ethnic minorities, but the stigma attached to mental health is my primary focus here.

Why is talking about mental health so sensitive; we are often very happy to discuss physical ill-health, even in respect of sensitive parts of the body?

The Race Equality Foundation published a report on mental health within ethnic minorities citing that:

‘There is evidence that black and minority ethnic individuals are 40% more likely than white Britons to come into contact with mental health services through the criminal justice system, rather than through referral from GPs or talking therapies (Kane, 2014). There have been a number of explanations for these differences, whether due to limited awareness of, or a reluctance to engage with, statutory services at an early stage of illness (possibly due to previous poor experiences or the belief that services are not “culturally appropriate”) or the stigma around mental health in some communities. Cultural differences in the way that mental health is perceived may also decrease the likelihood of individuals seeking care before reaching crisis point’.

Various other reports have also found that ethnic minorities receive a poorer mental health service, which clearly does not lend itself to people accessing such services readily.

So how do we overcome this stigma? There is of course no single answer to this problem but here are my thoughts on what would make a difference – and kindness is at the root of it all:

  • Allow people to be open about their difficulties, listen and show them empathy and kindness
  • Signpost people to mental health organisations who can offer professional support and advice – it is a simple yet effective act of kindness that can make all the difference
  • Talk about mental health within our ethnic communities, which is also key to helping ease the stigma attached to it
  • Advocate for those who feel less able to do so for themselves
  • Make conversations about mental health normal so that people do not feel like a ‘pariah’, which is crucial
  • Help dispel the myth that experiencing difficulties in relation to mental health is in some way a sign of ‘weakness’ or ‘do not exist’ within BAME communities. They most certainly do and the sooner we learn to talk about it the better

About the author

Shannett Thompson is a Senior Associate in the Regulatory Team and Chair of Kingsley Napley’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic ​(BAME) & Allies network.

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