When Chelsea Kwakye was an undergrad at the University of Cambridge, she never really thought her college’s mental health support was designed with people like her in mind. As a black Londoner who'd loosely identify as working class, she often felt she had to explain herself, to contort herself into what a typical Cambridge peer could understand. So looking for help with her mental health? That was a reach.
“I struggled most, firstly, with knowing who to go to. Like, who my first port of call should be,” she tells me. “And second, if I was going through a really hard time, I would always beat myself up and say ‘well, someone’s going through a harder time – they actually need the help.’ That really stifled my own mental health. I felt like I had a very high tolerance for it, and I think this stems from how we black women, and wider society, view our own suffering.”
Along with fellow Cambridge alum Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi, Chelsea’s written new book Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change (out Thursday the 27th of June). It’s the second book to come out on Stormzy’s #Merky Books Penguin imprint, after his oral history/memoir, and sits somewhere between a guide for black women heading to or already at uni, plus an insightful read for anyone else open to discovering the specific nuances of life for young black women in higher education. I mean, that makes it sound dry or preachy – to be clear, the book is neither. Ọrẹ and Chelsea, both 22, write in a warm, conversational tone that feels like you’ve stepped into one of their front rooms for a chat, a hot bowl of stew waiting next to the drink of your choice, cushions fluffed on the sofa.
The book’s chapter on mental health anchors our conversation today, as both women huddle together for a phone call with VICE. Like the rest of the book, the chapter's made up of text written by one of the authors (Chelsea, in this case), woven between first-person anecdotes from 14 contributors. I ask about how they struck this balance between anecdotal evidence and outside research. Anyone of a minority group already knows how quick sceptics are to shout “SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE THEN,” when you’re trying to share a possibly painful personal story that highlights systemic racism. Without stats and figures, it can be easy for people to dismiss the forms of racism that aren’t as overt as people shouting slurs in the street, or using them in old tweets.
“It can be a knee-jerk reaction from people who aren’t black, or aren’t going through it,” Ọrẹ says. “Like, ‘Oh, I’m not racist' – and they shift the blame and avoid accountability, even though they are complicit in the systems and structures that make us feel this way. We’re definitely preparing for it, and treading carefully.” We're still living in a world where people struggle to grasp that racism shows up beyond physical violence or verbal abuse, and can be reflected in discriminatory access to housing, education, employment and more.
“I felt it was important,” Chelsea says, “to look at the relationship between mental health and universities, then go deeper, adding in the layer of mental health and black people before going into mental health and black women and non-binary people.” She describes it as almost a multi-layered process, where then the interviews “helped to colour the experiences themselves” and flag up the under-explored areas where blackness and mental health seem to collide. “I think, for so long and so often, we’ve talked about anxiety and depression,” she continues. “But we rarely have in-depth and detailed conversations about other mental health issues – mania, psychosis, dependent personality disorder. And secondly, we don’t always talk about how being a black woman really mediates those experiences.”
After all, research has shown that black Brits tend to access mental health services through the justice system, rather than the health system. That means they’re more often sectioned, or treated under the Mental Health Act than exploring talk therapy via the NHS. Beyond that, racism itself has an impact on black people’s mental health. Microaggressions – those hard-to-pin-down moments when you’re made aware of your blackness and outsider status as a result – create a sort of death by a thousand cuts. As put in a March 2018 briefing by national ethnic inequality initiative, the Synergi Collaborative Centre, “these subtle influences can result in pessimism, and difficulties adjusting and recovering from trauma, and there is a growing and convincing body of evidence that psychosis and depression, substance misuse and anger are more likely in those exposed to racism.”
Briefly, Chelsea, Ọrẹ and I discuss the concept of ‘weathering.’ American academic Arline Geronimus coined the term in the early 90s, as a catchall to describe how black Americans seemed… somehow inexplicably ground down by life, even in youth. It turned out, their worse health outcomes than white people stemmed from racism itself. Chelsea and Ọrẹ don’t get into weathering in the book – they say they had to leave out so many stories and sub-topics, since “every single chapter could be its own book,” as Chelsea says at one point, laughing. But this feels like the start of a conversation they want to have, for years to come.
Working on the book has “helped people to push their thinking a bit more, and that’s what we really intended”, says Chelsea. “Just to have talking points, and so that we’re having these conversations, they don’t descend into buzzwords and generalisations. These conversations really do deserve time – they deserve books, and long conversations. We don’t want to come across as just being here for a moment; ‘we’ve got our book and we’re done.’ We want to have a lasting impact. That’s really important.”
Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change by Chelsea Kwakye and Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi is published by #Merky Books on the 27th of June, and retails for £12.99. Read an exclusive extract from the book’s chapter on mental health, below. It features first-person accounts from University of Warwick graduate Mikai McDermott, University of Newcastle student Fope Olaleye and Cambridge alum Micha Frazer-Carroll of site gal-dem.
The ease with which we talk about counselling and ‘talking to someone’ as a viable option shows how far from an inter- cultural health system we really are. With few (sometimes no) black counsellors working in universities across the country, this provides another huge barrier to addressing the mental health problems of black women. I always took comfort when I didn’t have to explain why I thought something was racist. My black friends just knew it, and most had experienced the exact same feelings. But your friends shouldn’t have to be a last- resort option.
You can’t just give any counsellor to anyone. You will be telling your [white] counsellor things and she will be thinking, ‘Why are you upset? This is not a big deal’… It puts you off wanting to even seek help in the first place, which is a big step to take: to admit that you need help. – Mikai
Micha, who was previously Cambridge Student Union’s Welfare and Rights Officer, played a significant role in ensuring that for the first time, black and minority ethnic students could request to see BME counsellors. In pushing for the change, she found that words such as ‘explaining’, ‘lecturing’ and ‘teaching’ came up more than once in students’ testimonials, demonstrating how therapy can quickly slip into providing emotional and educational labour just to get your therapist on the ‘same page as you’. Students also found that they were ‘routinely questioned about the validity and accuracy’ of their experiences of racism.
When I had CBT [Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] last year, a lot of the problems I had [were in] telling my CBT counsellor, who was a white man. I was like, a lot of the problems I have [are], you know, racism, sexism, that [affect] my mental health, so you know, it means I can’t really make friends. And his answer was, ‘Go to more society events, make friends.’ – Fope
A general approach to mental health is not the best way to tackle the growing crisis. Marginalised groups, such as black women, will continue to be misaddressed by health services that are racialised. It is virtually impossible to disentangle structures such as race, class, gender, disability and sexuality from mental health.
Individuals such as Dr Isha McKenzie- Mavinga, an integrative transcultural psychotherapist, recognise this, and actively try to carve out safe places for black women to share their experiences and ‘not feel mad and isolated’. Using the term ‘black empathic approach’, McKenzie-Mavinga has created a safe space in which black women’s experiences are not denied but are validated. Similarly, the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network (BAATN) helps to connect BAME people with counsellors of the same or similar ethnic origin.
Alternatively, first points of call may become lecturers or personal and academic tutors, who are immediately more accessible to students. This pushes the point that understandings of mental health need to extend beyond the student in an academic sense. There is often a disconnect between what is happening on campuses and what is happening in classrooms. Those who work at universities – lecturers, professors, personal tutors and support staff – regularly encounter students in distress, yet this is largely removed from the conversation of mental health.