Mental Well Being & Black History Month

‘I was stripped; my arms held behind me; my legs extended and forcibly separated from each other; I was plunged into the tank and kept under the water till all resistance on my part ceased; their [the nurses] grasp was then relaxed – I rose to the surface and breathed as if it were my last. Scarcely, however, had I drawn my breath when I was again subjected to the same horrible treatment, with the addition of having my head hurt against the sides of the tank, and my poor body beaten and contused with blows, till the fear of murder prompted them to desist’.


This is a quote from Ann Pratt a mulatto (historical expression used during the period of slavery) or mixed race woman who was detained in Kingston Lunatic Asylum in 1860. She wrote a pamphlet called “Seven Months in the Kingston Lunatic Asylum and what I saw there’. This colonial record (CO 137/350/52) which is at The National Archives in Kew is a harrowing account of her treatment of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Her experience although over 150 years ago was at a time in post slavery Jamaica where the plantation owners and the colonial establishment still had a significant control over the plight of black people. This reminds me one of the important reasons why since 1987 we have in October Black History Month in the UK. The origins of Black History or Negro History were established by Carter G. Wodson in 1926 who wrote his ground breaking book ‘Miseducation of the Negro’.

What is interesting is that Ann Pratt was able to write a pamphlet and articulate her experiences of abuse, maltreatment and over coming racism which is in line with other women of the 18th and 19th century like Phyllis Weatley, Mary Prince, and Mary Seacole. These women are now part of the national curriculum thus giving a balanced perspective along the history of African civilisations that people of African descent are not just victims but can shape and influence society and the world.

On one level thank goodness we don’t have that level of extreme treatment in our mental health services today compared to the asylums in colonial Jamaica or Victorian East London. However, the Rocky Bennett inquiry and other recent deaths still reminds us the struggle for better services and accountability still lives on. This is why the United Nations (UN) declared the International Year for People of African Descent back in 2011. The idea building on the Durban conference on racism and xenophobia in 2001is the worldwide recognition of the contribution people of African origin have made socially, culturally, economically and politically. The Year will also look at the challenges faced and the need to address the protection and promotion of African descendants' human rights.

Ban Ki-Moon the Secretary General of The UN anticipates that member states will encourage the continuation and the strengthening of a political commitment to end racism and discrimination against people of African descent.

Unfortunately, it appears that the current government policy on mental health has not taken this board especially with the demise of the Delivering Race Equality back in December 2010. The UN recently in September 2011 reviewed Britain performance on race equality over the last 10 years across a range of policies from health, education, criminal justice. The key recommendation made by officials was based on evidence submitted by the UK government and NGOs was that the Coalition government needs to have new national race equality strategy as part of its commitment to tackling racial inequality in society building on the last government’s efforts.
Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

We cannot tolerate as a society the continuing evidence from the last Count Me Survey which still highlights over representation and the extensive use of Community Treatment Orders for black and minority ethnic patients and service users. The level of stigma, discrimination along with the mythology which the media, psychiatrist, commissioners, public and even within our own diverse communities still perceived that black people even with medication and limited access to talking therapies are still seen as mad, bad and dangerous.

Sadly we are now in period of a new moral panic which I would describe as retro racism where Victorian and Cold War perspectives on black people and other minority ethnic communities are alive and kicking and that you if black or white campaigner fighting for this cause you are castigated as being too politically correct and living in our own social construct like the film ‘The Matrix’.

The biggest concern is the current landscape coupled with the issue around knife and gun crime, increasing levels of obesity and the impact of our materialist/celebrity culture is that children and young people need strong positive narratives around our historical and current achievement to provide the mental stimulus and confidence to have the necessary skills and abilities to negotiate this challenging world.

What is clear from a recent Afiya Trust report launched in July 2011 called Enjoy, Achieve and be Healthy, black children and young people are not getting the professional support for their emotional and mental well being well. Young people from the research want to have the space, environment, and respectful contact with adults to have a better understanding of their cultural identify and heritage in a world of growing retro racism.

This was the catalyst how Every Generation was established based on several years’ experiences mentoring young people in Hackney and Brent. This also influenced the launch of ‘100 Great Black Britons’ as a counter narrative against the mainstream view reflected that black people were invisible to making Britain ‘Great’ and that our historical achievements were only seen part of a trivial pursuit game. Working with Robin Walker on publishing his book ‘When We Ruled’ further made the case to the mainstream that Black history is also world history.

However in the context of cuts and a growing back lash against the whole notion and concept of celebrating black achievement during the month of October and beyond this means that black people are being denied their basic human rights to access and promote cultural heritage in line UN convention and treaties. This probably explains why the UN Year of African Descent in 2011 has been so much muted here in the UK. Coupled with a potential acceleration of young black people in the mental health and criminal system leading to another 30 /40 years of over representation, miss diagnosis, and continuing stigma and discrimination- Black Britain is in a critical state! Thus, we have a moral and political imperative to focus our energies on saving our children and young people so they are not caught in the mental health and long term conditions world of ill health and welfare benefit trap. However, we also we need to remember and acknowledge that we a have large growing cadre growing of young people who are having more access to education, training and life experiences compared to the Windrush and Sandwich generation.

We should be now recording the experiences of black service users, carers, and professional to leave a legacy for a future generation like Ann Pratt did in her pamphlet reminding us of the ongoing fight against the process of racialsation. Otherwise, we look at future records at The National Archives over the next 60 years where we simply lament on the missed opportunities in tackling racial inequalities.

Black History although not a panacea to solve the issues around mental health or obesity it can provide a positive contribution around one’s self esteem, confidence and resilience in giving a perspective on how black people have contributed to British and world history that is why we need to campaign to stop the future erosion of Black History Month and generally celebrating black achievement in the same vein as the Olympics and Paralympics.

To make your nomination for 100 Great Black BritonsClick to nominate Click Here