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Mental Health: People from ethnically diverse backgrounds say help doesn’t always feel accessible

Sat in a circle at a community hall in south London, a group of people from ethnic minority backgrounds are gathered to talk about their mental health.

It starts with a conversation we’re all having as they share their fears about the spread of the Omicron variant.

But as the discussion grows deeper, it becomes clear some people here have not always felt they had the chance to speak openly about how they feel.

Recalling her experiences with mental health services, Rita begins to break down.

“When you reach out for some kind of help in the community and you find out it’s not there, it makes life much harder.

“I’ve known from the age of 17 there is no help out there. There is no one to listen when you want to go and sit and talk to somebody,” she says through tears, while discussing her experiences of bereavement and abuse.

“The worst thing is when you go to talk to somebody and because they don’t understand you, it’s like you’re just talking to yourself.”

In recent times, the support she felt she was missing has come in the form of Engage in ME, a programme that provides mental health and wellbeing support to adults from Black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee communities living in Lewisham.

Statistics show people from ethnically diverse backgrounds make up only 9.6% of qualified clinical psychologists in England and Wales in contrast to 14% of the population.

This group helps to bridge that gap through a mixture of online sessions and this meeting Rita is attending which is called Open Mind. It is a space to share needs and worries, alongside resources.

Also at the Open Mind session meeting in the Telegraph Hill Centre just south of New Cross is Cynthia Couzens.

She shares similar experiences to Rita, encountering difficulties with specialists who were not from her background, but she also faced stigmas from her own community.

Couzens endured an abusive relationship and self-harmed. At points, she was so low she wanted to take her own life, yet she remembers a black GP who refused to refer her to a specialist, instead telling her to pray about her issues.

“Although they’re trained professionals, there are stigmas in the culture that override that.

“When I told him (a GP) all these things, I didn’t know I was depressed. He said you should pray about it.”

Other issues Cynthia felt contributed to her struggles were her experiences with day-to-day instances of racism.

This is something some experts feel needs to be addressed in how counsellors, psychiatrists and other specialists are trained.

Divine Charura, a professor of counselling psychology at York St John University believes that addressing the trauma that comes with being discriminated against is an important part of improving what is known as the “therapeutic relationship” between a mental health professional and their patient.

“People in our community are facing trauma and discrimination on a day-to-day basis, this might be because of their ethnicity, because of their social class, because of their disability,” he said.

“So, the training and the curriculum needs to really focus and invite the trainees to think about themselves in the world and the patients and clients that they will be working with.”

Professor Charura believes this is already beginning to happen because of a “paradigm shift” in society which has seen people have been talking more about the impact of racism and the importance of diversity.

According to some, a large part of this shift means grassroots groups, like the one in Lewisham, will become even more important, as models of best practice for older institutions like the NHS.

Eugene Ellis, a psychotherapist, author and founder of the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network, (BAATN) called on greater funding for these smaller organisations.

“I think the NHS and other places in the established therapeutic community have tried for many years, there are good people in those places who want to provide something, but I think ultimately, they’re not going to be able to unless they see an example of what it looks like somewhere else.

“Those smaller organisations know what needs to be done, the people who work there understand race and the impact of race is important to them, they include that in the work that they do together.”

One place where calls for funding have become urgent is in Lewisham, where Engage in Me are hoping for more support to help continue working with the “family” they’ve created before the project is scheduled to end in March.

Speaking after the Open Mind session, Smita Patel the peer support manager for Bromley, Lewisham and Greenwich Mind who run Engage in Me said it would be a blow if they had to stop their work supporting what she called a “hidden community”.

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“The idea of the project was to bring a group of people together to make them feel very comfortable about their mental health and to reassure them that you’re not alone and what you’re feeling is normal,” she said.

“It’s not hugely expensive, but it has such a profound effect on so many people’s lives and we’ve had such positive feedback from our participants. It would be sad not to be able to do that, because it’s a really unique project.”

Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.



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