WHITEWASHING OF MENTAL HEALTH

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By Julian Canlas

TW: Mental health, racialised violence, racism

The first session at the psychotherapist is always tough. Your psychiatrist is a lanky white man presumably in his 50s. There’s a mosaic of framed medical certificates hanging behind his desk. You’re an 18-year old brown-skinned boy slumped back on this armchair that’s supposed to feel comfortable, but really the fake leather sticks coldly against your sweaty back. He asks about various aspects of your life to get a better evaluation: family history, school, suicide, self-harm, homelessness. He tries to sound nice—this condescendingly sweet falsetto undermined by the mechanical typing in of your diagnosis. Every time you spill yourself, you feel the room closing in.

After a few sessions, you become more at ease, more confident, and so does he. He prescribes you some drugs. The subject of your love life enters the discussion. You haven’t told him that you’re gay, because of the wedding ring on his finger. You’ve learned from being with fellow Catholics and Filipinos to repress your sexuality, to bury it deep within yourself to keep your friends and to keep your reputation in this tight-knit Filipino community. It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

‘I still haven’t found anyone yet,’ you say.

He says that it’s good that you are taking it slow with girls. Women are different to men. You need to approach them delicately. You stay quiet.

Eventually, your ethnicity finally enters the discussion. By this time, you’ve been under medication for a whole month, and the drugs make you sleepy and irritable, but the mood swings have lessened, and you don’t have insomnia, anymore. He still doesn’t know that you’re gay and brought up by a single mother. He says something about Asian kids being more stressed due to higher expectations from their parents. Parents. Filipinos are some of the most friendliest and family-oriented people he’s ever met. He knows a lot in his church. You keep your mouth shut. He prescribes you drugs. You’re amazed at the amount of information you’ve managed to withhold throughout the sessions.

This story is not unique, or special. Often times, young people of colour either live their suffering in silence, attempt to shed away their ties with their own cultural spheres, which aggravate these mental health issues, or worse, because of the lack of support, die by suicide.

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via  POC and Mental Illness Photo Project/ Dior Vargas 

One of the main traits in psychology is universalism—the belief that the basis of human behavior is the same for every person across cultures, religions, and societies. Generalising experiences to be able to treat the wider population is necessary. However, by failing to take into account the various cultural factors that affect the mental health of people of colour, there is the danger of being Eurocentric—that while treating people of colour, mental health therapists are fundamentally ignoring the very cultural and religious factors that contribute to these mental health issues.

The whitewashing of mental health in the UK needs to stop. Beyond mental health facilities, this whitewashing is closely tied to institutional racism, as evidenced by the death of Sean Rigg, a 40-year old Black British man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, whilst under police custody. Again, this story is not unique.

acts of violence by white bodies are excused as an issue of mental illness, whilst people of colour instantly become terrorists.

Media representations of police brutality remain rampant. Yet for every flashy headline, for every sad account of the consequences, the mental health of these victims has been criminally underreported; acts of violence by white bodies are excused as an issue of mental illness, whilst people of colour instantly become terrorists.

There’s a widespread stigma around mental illnesses, but this is worse of people of colour. Not only are mental illnesses stigmatise in our cultural communities, there are no narratives that exist to represent our unique struggles, and this can be a very isolating experience. As I’ve said in one of my previous articles, suicide in LGBTQ+ people of colour remain significantly higher than in their white counterparts. 41% of transpeople of colour have attempted suicide.

Despite these ethnic minorities remain consistently overrepresented in mental health services, simultaneously reflecting the inadequacies of these cultural communities and mental health establishments to effectively tackle this crisis.

This is why it is so important for communities of people of colour to remain militant in rendering their cultural communities to become more inclusive, whether through the creation of Afrocentric therapy centres, or the rise of queer artists of colour. It is important for people of colour to know that they are not alone in their struggles, and that there will be places where we can be accepted by fellow people who look like us, because they are familiar with our struggle.

Header image via: © Paige Nelson / Dior Vargas POC Mental Illness Photo Project

One thought on “WHITEWASHING OF MENTAL HEALTH

  1. There’s a widespread stigma around mental illnesses,

    — or so you have been trained to say. You do realize you have a choice not to participate, do you not?

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