"Having endured a chain of racialised harassment, social isolation and emotional abuse, culminating in a complex trauma diagnosis, I had not been having a great time."torbakhopper

The most humiliated I’ve ever felt at university was when I theatrically broke down in a club after dissociating. I’m on the dance floor, surrounded by queer and colourful lights and friends, Whitney Houston’s How Will I Know is playing, and I’m having a great time. Moments of pure ecstasy like this had been rare in my first year at Cambridge. Having endured a chain of racialised harassment, social isolation and emotional abuse, culminating in a complex trauma diagnosis, I had not been having a great time. But this evening was an exception, and I am drunk on the jubilation found in spaces of retreat.

Dissociation occurred without warning. At once I was fixed in place and the music and lights synthesised into abstraction, as my body was drained of sensation and response. I had sight, but I could not see anything; I was hearing, but I could not comprehend sound. My friends attempted to sit me down and pour water in my mouth, which immediately poured back out because my body had become entirely unresponsive.

I ‘snapped out of it’, and my humiliating episode began. I had spent the night celebrating all things black and queer, and ended it crying about how much I despised who I was and the trials and tribulations that accompany it. When you internalise pain for so long and fail to voice it, things fall apart. And this was one big fucking mess.

I rarely recount this story in much detail because I still feel embarrassed by it. I’m often met by assertions that I should not feel embarrassed, that everyone has “had the odd breakdown on a night out,” but the truth is my feelings of humiliation lay in exposing my vulnerability, not the theatrics of the outburst.

The problem is that for black people, particularly those of us who are queer, narratives of ‘resilience’ are dominant, and if we fail to live up to this then we are seen as weak. Identity narratives of survival and resilience are harmful to queer people of colour, though they operate under the guise of testifying our ‘strength’; our very existence is seen as proof that we can overcome the adversity presented by systemic racism and queerphobia, and mental sickness is an admission of failing to survive. We are conditioned to rationalise sickness as indigenous to marginal identity. It is a narrative familiar to those of us with marginalised identities.

"We are instructed to embody resilience, and so we fake good health."

This May, Naomi Campbell featured in the Evening Standard Magazine and spoke on the shame she received for seeking therapy to treat her mental health issues and drug abuse. “People tried to shame me about the fact that I went to get help. You should never feel shame because recovery is a positive thing.”

But the path to recovery is fraught with obstacles for marginalised people; our very interaction with mental health is defined by our overlapping intersections, and compounded by shame and trepidation. We are instructed to embody resilience, and so we fake good health. When we seek help it can be disastrous, and thus we are often reminded why we don’t.

I remember approaching a welfare authority and speaking about my feelings of isolation. When I mentioned that I had used Tinder to socialise by going on dates, I was met with comments which suggested that, as a gay man, interaction with other gay men inevitably leads to a contraction of the AIDS virus. When I discussed my experiences with social anxiety with another welfare authority, I was met with comments stereotyping black men as boisterous and aggressive.

As a queer black person, these experiences with mental health services mentally ripped me to shreds. Being queer, I do not fit the pejorative masculine, aggressive stereotype of the black man and yet I felt inadequate for this. Being black, and statistically more vulnerable to HIV contraction, I was made to feel even more like one of those ‘dirty’ queers, the types you’re told to renounce association with for acceptability in a heterosexist world.

"I still feel uncomfortable about my public displays of vulnerability, but I’m recognising that vulnerability is no crime."

Reports by Time to Change indicate that 93% of mentally unwell people of colour in the UK have faced discrimination and stigma, and 80% of ethnic minority people feel unable to speak about their experiences. Couple this with those who feel they cannot speak on queerness for fear of rejection and it is more dramatic. On mental health awareness days and weeks, I am overwhelmed by articles tackling mental health stigma within ethnic minority communities.

But this conversation often seems narrow, and often this is used as a scapegoat for lack of resources or barriers to access of them, and lack of representation within hospitals. When Mind, the mental health charity, investigated the treatment of BME patients, it found that while BME groups were over-represented in the most extreme end of detention, factors such as cultural barriers and disproportionate uses of medication hindered effective treatment.

As the UK government makes devastating cuts to mental health services however, as reported by the Policy and Campaigns Officer at Mind, “it’s highly unlikely that specialist services tailored towards the BME community will be continued.” Marginalised people don’t simply slip through the cracks of mental health systems, but are actively side-lined and mistreated.

I’ve refused to attend therapy until I can find a black therapist, a black queer therapist being ideal. It’s easy to speak about “talking” about your feelings, but I cannot relate my experiences to white people and heterosexual people with maximum effect. When I have attempted to speak about experiences of racism and homophobia with all-white, all-straight college figures, not only has the inability to relate to each other rendered any conversation futile, but I have been repeatedly invalidated by the same old platitudes, “maybe it wasn’t meant like this”, “are you sure you’re not thinking about this too deeply?”.

Mental health issues are often framed in terms of self-management and loss of executive function, but for marginalised people they are also about dealing with racist or queerphobic systems. This is why culturally competent therapists, counsellors, social workers and psychiatrists are necessary – I need a black, queer therapist who can understand the experiences which shape me. Living with trauma related to my identity is a conundrum.

"Queer people of colour too are side-lined, as unpalatable people."

Most literature on recovery from trauma stresses the need for an environment free from stressors, but when racial microaggressions are a function of your everyday existence, there is no safe space to heal. When the same environments are reproduced in hospitals through discriminatory or insensitive staff, queer people of colour like myself are told that we are not meant to recover – again, pain is meant to be indigenous, genetic.

Just as in mainstream mental health discourse when unpalatable symptoms of mental disorders are side-lined, queer people of colour too are side-lined, as unpalatable people. Marginalised bodies, queer bodies, black bodies, fat bodies, disabled bodies, are marginalised into non-existence when mental health narratives occur, for want of focus on ‘majority’ issues.

The face of mental health discourse is white, yet mental health inequality is rampant, with 70% of Lambeth’s residents detained in psychiatric care being Black, though Black people make up just 26% of Lambeth’s population. Intersections of class and extreme poverty, as well as race and sexuality, are behind over-representation.

The importance of orchestrating mental health care tailored towards marginalised bodies, and programmes that support producing doctors and social workers of marginal identities, cannot be understated. Within a political climate of austerity and cuts to mental health services, it’s hard to visualise a racially-focused revolution within medicine and psychology. But it can start by reimagining our ideas of mental health and validating the diversity of bodies it affects. I still feel uncomfortable about my public displays of vulnerability, but I’m recognising that vulnerability is no crime

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