Speakers at the event (left to right): Samara Linton, Dr Ahmed Hankir, Huma Munshi, Jacq Applebee, Eugene Ellis and Dr Rashid Zaman Ella Green

Nearly 9 in 10 people who experience mental health problems say that they face stigma and discrimination as a result. It is well known that one way to challenge mental health stigma is to talk more openly about it, yet the mental health narrative is very homogenous.

People from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems and are overrepresented in mental health facilities, yet are less likely to engage with mainstream mental health services. Women often experience different symptoms of depression to men, but men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. LGBT individuals have higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal feelings than heterosexuals, but rates of mental illness and self-harm are higher in bisexual women than lesbian women.

People’s experiences of mental health are complex. In order to have real and meaningful discussions about mental health, we need to engage with the different stories that exist among us. This was the premise of Hidden Mental Health Stories, a panel discussion on Saturday 25th April that explored the relationship between mental health and ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion.

Different members of the panel shared their experiences of prejudice and discrimination and how this affected their self-esteem and mental health. Their experiences included racism in the workplace, biphobia in LGBT spaces and shame culture in particular South Asian communities. Negative experiences were also encountered in mental health facilities resulting in distrust and disengagement from mainstream services. Cultural incompetency and ignorance were identified as two major issues that prevent mental health services from benefiting those who need them the most.

Stigma is a common barrier to people with mental health problems seeking the help they need. Some cultures do not have words for depression or anxiety, or describe mental distress using alternative frameworks that can make speaking about mental health within these communities more challenging. In many African and Caribbean communities, people are expected to be ‘strong’, and in some religious communities, mental health problems are seen as a sign of spiritual weakness.

Even when help is sought from the NHS, it is often difficult to get the advice that is needed. It is often assumed that people who are from close-knit religious or cultural communities will be able to find support within them. One speaker, Huma Munshi, recalled how her GP described her as high-functioning, self-assured and articulate. Simply put, she was too together to be falling apart. This was something that resonated with many of us in the room, who as high-achieving Cambridge students can feel that our mental health problems are being undermined by our own (appearance of) success.

What can we do about this?

1.Listen

Being open about your mental health problems can be a scary thing to do and can make you feel quite vulnerable. So when someone decides to tell you that they are unwell, believe them! Instead of making assumptions about the role of their ethnicity, sexuality or gender, respect them and the validity of their experiences as an individual.

2. Identify your own cultural framework

Eugene Ellis, an integrative arts therapist and founder of the Black and Asian Therapists’ Network, stated that no one is neutral. While people from minority groups must daily navigate the majority culture, people from the majority culture often fail to acknowledge that they have a culture and therefore will have ideas and prejudices as a result of living within it. Therefore, to have a more honest conversation about mental health with people from other backgrounds and identities, we must seek to identify and address our own preconceptions.

3. Adopt a holistic approach to mental health

“Prayer, poetry and drama therapy”. While agreeing that medication works for many people, Dr Hankir, 2013 Royal College of Psychiatrists Foundation Doctor of the Year, described these as the three things that helped him on his road to recovery from bipolar disorder. Social contact, music therapy, reading and writing are all things that can ease mental distress and may help bridge the cultural divide caused by more traditional methods. These things should play a greater role in our discussions of mental health.

4. Be an ally

Those of you who are involved in mental health spaces and campaigns, I urge you to step back and look at the conversations you are having. Is there a single narrative? Are certain voices being left out? If so, look into why that is. Those who are involved with cultural societies, religious groups, LGBT+ groups, do you speak openly about mental health? Do you address this issue that affects 1 in 4 of us each year? Consider collaborating and supporting each other. Bring your conversations together.

5. Make noise

For many in the audience, Saturday’s discussion was their first ever opportunity to discuss the interaction of religion and mental health. It was their first time hearing about the impact of  dealing with multiple oppressions on mental health. I trust that we will see many more of these conversations in Cambridge over the next few years. I also trust that we will all play our part in making them happen, that we will all make some noise. For in the words of Malcolm X, “It’s the hinge that squeaks that gets the grease”.

Samara is editor at Polygeia (www.polygeia.com), a global health think tank, as well as Mental Health editor at Dream Nation (dreamnation.co.uk).

@Samara_Linton.

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