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What You Learn Making a Film About Black Mental Health

A new BBC 3 documentary explores the state of black people's mental health in Britain, to spark a conversation around a topic that's been controversial for decades.

Keith Dube, host of Being Black, Going Crazy?

This post first appeared on VICE UK.

It took a few years to hit breaking point. In January 2015, when Keith Dube was 25, he decided to finally share his struggles with mental health, in the simplest way people have used for the past decade: a blogpost. He wrote about his depression, and coming to terms with his illness enough to face it head-on. But, unlike most people, within a year his stream-of-consciousness blog ended up leading him towards making a film for the BBC.


"I wrote a little blog that I promoted through my Instagram and everything, and the response to that was insane," he says now. "I've gotten a crazy amount of people messaging me, talking about how they're going through it or how they didn't think that someone 'like me' – a confident, out-spoken person – could have issues like that. That's when I realised that there's a lot of people just like me going through this, but no one would suspect it."

There are a lot of people like him in some ways, but Keith – now aged 26 – had been given his platform mostly due to the social media presence he's built up over the years. Online he's still known to some as "Mr Exposed", blogging and popping off tweets and Instagram posts that can easily rile or inspire. He now also hosts a digital talk radio show, which he's used to whip up conversation on mental health.

In particular, the documentary – rather clumsily titled Being Black, Going Crazy? – tackles mental illness among black people in the UK. An oft-cited stat, which first appeared in a 2014 report on black mental health and wellbeing in south London, says that "black men are 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with a serious mental health illness than their white counterparts".

As far back as 1988, researchers found that Afro-Caribbeans living in the UK were 12 times more likely to suffer from schizophrenia than white Brits, and later research has consistently found a link between severe mental illness and migrant communities, from the Netherlands to the US. A controversial two-year study conducted in London, Bristol and Nottingham and published in 2006 found differences when they broke down that population further: black Africans in the UK were six times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than white Brits, and black Caribbeans nine times more likely. In short: something's seriously wrong, and Being Black attempts to explore some of the reasons why this might be happening.


The question stems from the fact that black people tend to disproportionately enter mental health services through the justice system rather than talk therapy. A 2014 report by the Care Quality Commission looked at how ethnicity tends to factor into how people enter mental health care, particularly when they're sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Keith had grown up with a vague understanding of this idea, which he soon reframed. "It's not a straightforward process of 'section him, pump him with drugs and throw away the key'; it's not that black and white," he says. "Where I grew up, they'd tell stories of 'they'll lock you up,' and when you hear that you think to yourself: 'I'm not mentioning any of my issues then. I don't want to get locked up.' You think it's something that just happens so easily, like you can go to hospital and never leave."

Really, as the film shows, there's far more nuance at play. You do meet a young woman who was sectioned in 2010, after having her first child. When she went to her GP for help, there wasn't a first-response team on call. "Five policemen came into the GP," she says in the film, "and held me down – physically held me down to the floor, because no woman in their right mind is going to give up their six-month-old. Words cannot describe the pain." As Keith then asks, would she have been treated differently had she been white? We can never know.


But that particular story led Keith on a tangent, looking into why he believes black people tend to end up in need of mental health care when their condition has deteriorated substantially. Namely, stigma, and a reluctance to just speak openly about mental health issues. "It's not even that we have more issues, as black people, it's that I think we report our issues a whole lot later than everyone else. By the time a lot of people report, they're past talking therapies. That's why people end up having to be medicated, because your condition could be 12 years gone."

Ashley Weir, who features in the documentary, and lives with schizophrenia

Throughout the film, there's a tendency to lump all black people together as living one experience. It's a flawed premise. While the "strict African parent" stereotype may apply to some, the reality for each member of the black diaspora is far more complicated. When I put this to Keith, he pauses.

"That's dangerous, and that messed with me as well. I didn't speak to my parents, to my dad, for a very long time about my mental health issues – not until this year, essentially, when I decided to do this film. When we did have the conversation about mental health, dad was very understanding. I thought, 'wow, if I hadn't put him in a box and decided for myself how he'd treat this, I could've spoken to him years ago.'"

While neither the majority of research on this subject so far, nor this film, can definitively answer why black people in Britain are more likely to live with severe mental health issues, Keith believes making the film could at least "spark a conversation", as he energetically says. He's been criticised for his role in the film, based on past remarks he's made online and his own views on female sexuality, and black women more broadly. How does he respond to those who think he wasn't the ideal person to make this film? "I'm human, so I'm going to do stupid stuff, I'm going to say stupid things. I'm not a perfect individual. But whenever I can draw attention to certain things, I will."


Being Black, Going Crazy? was released by BBC3, and has been available on BBC iPlayer since Tuesday the 27th of September.


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