Being a young British Afro-Caribbean is hard work. A concoction of comically high inner city living prices combined with a stalled economy provide just a glimpse at the stresses facing the UK millennial—regardless of race. But for those with family roots outside of Europe, the struggles are even worse.
Discrimination and racism — whether overt or not — are dirty spots that refuse to be smudged out of the nation's patchwork. The number of ethnic minority youths out of work for more than a year rose by 50 percent between 2010 to 2015. That equates to over 40,000 black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people between the ages of 16 and 24 classed as long-term unemployed.
But there are also deeper-rooted issues around wellbeing. The understanding of mental health within ethnic minorities has been the elephant in the room for eons. The continued failure of the NHS to cater to ethnic minority-specific problems are just the start of the problem. Afro-Caribbean people are three to five times more likely than any other group to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital for schizophrenia, despite having lower rates of diagnosis for other common mental health problems. Black British men are 17 times more likely than their white counterparts to be diagnosed with a psychotic illness, and research on black women is scant.
The conversation is changing, however. Recovr is a new website that will enable young Afro-Caribbean people to find Afro-Caribbean therapists. It's a way to link people up with therapists who understand the cultural context of their mental health problems. The site's founder Sait Cham explains how he thinks it could revolutionise mental health for the UK's young BAME population.
Hi Sait. How did the idea for Recovr come about?
SC: It was born out of an experience that a close friend had. He was going through some hard times as an early teenager and was struggling with certain things – which he eventually discovered was depression – and decided that he wanted to do something about it. He heard stories about the NHS route, which involves firstly having to prove that there's something wrong with you and then sitting on long waiting lists. You might get access to a counselling service – but who you get to see is totally random. The most you could ask for was whether you wanted a male or a female counsellor.
So my friend went on Google and found his own therapist who he continues to see to this day. He had two things that most of my own demographic don't necessarily have: the understanding that mental health is serious and something you need to prioritise; and the finance to begin therapy and continue it. I thought that if I can see improvements in him, how can I turn that process into something that everyone has access to?
So what is the aim of the Recovr service?
We want to allow people to easily reach the correct therapist for them. Eventually, this will be subsidised so if someone can't afford the service, we can help them out. We've had more than 1400 sign-ups in less than five months. The hard part is targeting those that aren't yet aware of us. How do we speak to the disillusioned kid from Tottenham? Can we go into prisons and universities to spread this message? How do we educate parents so that they can detect these issues in their kids? All of these are questions that we want to prod at.
How does it actually work?
You're asked a couple of questions: Where are you? Who is the therapy for? And, how much can you afford? Then you're presented with a list of results which allow you to filter your search. All the information that you find on each therapist has been pre-entered by them, so they can tell the user about themselves and their specialism. After contact is made the interaction is taken offline and therapy takes place.
The black community has been crying out for a service that takes their cultural needs into consideration and until the mainstream health services do, we'll have to take the responsibility into our own hands.
The NHS has been widely criticised for failing to deal with issues around black mental health.
I think the problem starts with society at large and discrimination in particular. We are not here saying that Caucasians aren't any less qualified. It's just that they don't share the same cultural context; an issue which is often overlooked. If you can fully empathise with a patient, the help you can offer them is likely to be a lot more efficient.
This isn't an issue that's been totally neglected by the NHS. There have been government-led initiatives, but they haven't been totally committed to it. Organisations like the the Black & Asian Therapist Network and Time To Change are doing good work, we're fighting the same battle, but I think there's a gap for what we do with young people.
What's your heritage?
My father is Ghanaian-Lebanese and my mother is Gambian. I was raised in Poplar [in the east London] for the majority of my 25 years. The neighbouring areas, Haringey and Newham in particular, have a high level of mental health problems within the Afro-Caribbean community.
Do you think it's important that you're from the same demographic that you're targeting?
I think that right now I'm the best person to solve this problem for a bunch of reasons that aren't just me tooting my own horn. I'm in direct contact with people who would use the service every day. I know how to communicate with this group of people because I am this group of people.
I'm also of Afro-Caribbean descent and feel like mental health stigma is deeply ingrained in our culture. What are your thoughts on this?
It's no secret that mental health is a no-go area in our community for a bunch of reasons. I was speaking to my dad earlier and we had a conversation about how masculinity is a chokehold in our culture. Men constantly have to prove their masculinity and this in itself is a suffocating position to be in.
There are also religious and other cultural stigmas which play a big part. Take the friend I mentioned earlier – when he was 15, he had an experience when he'd just had dinner and then had to run upstairs because he was crying so much and didn't know why. He eventually plucked up the courage to speak to his family about it. Their response? Go to church. The solution being that he had to up his faith in God.
Is that pure negligence or just fear?
It's not a purposeful negligence. I think people are doing the best with what they know. This is where awareness and education steps in.
How much has the internet, and the growth of social media in particular, affected mental health?
I'm very keen to understand this relationship. The beautiful thing about Recovr is the fact that we will have access to a large pool of data that, in the future, will act as a base of information so we can actually better our service. I believe there's a link between the two, but it's all anecdotal to my knowledge.
I find it ironic that ethnic minority culture is specifically centred around togetherness – arguably more than anywhere else – yet, this doesn't extend to mental health.
It's an interesting point. At what point in someone's life do you introduce and teach them what it means to actually be mentally ill and the fact that it's not something to gloss over? I just think that there has never been a moment where that has been introduced in our experiences.
Are there any plans to open Recovr up beyond the Afro-Caribbean community in the future?
Our service is based on three key signifiers: age, race and location. We're dedicated to making this a UK-focused service. The black community has been crying out for a service that takes their cultural needs into consideration and until the mainstream health services do, we'll have to take the responsibility into our own hands.
Follow Errol on Twitter @errol_and
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