INDIE talks to Black Minds Matter UK founders Agnes Mwakatuma and Annie Nash about how race-based traumatic stress is affecting Britain.
In the 57 days since George Floyd’s merciless killing, there’s been a significant and global shift in the narrative around Black lives. During this time, we’ve witnessed conversations that have previously not been given their deserved space; on the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of Black people, both in the states and globally.
The dissemination of images, videos and sound clippings of violence against Black bodies, combined with the effects of lockdown and the disproportionate impact of the virus on BIPOC, has led many people to realise a larger mental health crisis within the Black community. “These traumatic images remind Black people that they have to deal with their very being attacked—from micro-aggressions to police brutality” says Agnes Mwakatuma, co-founder of UK organisation, Black Minds Matter UK. “It’s led a lot of Black people’s mental wellbeing to be drastically affected.”
Mwakatuma launched Black Minds Matter UK along with Annie Nash earlier this year to provide mental health services to the Black British people. The charity provides free of charge counselling to help people to deal with race-based traumatic stress. Coined by Robert T. Carter, this term describes the particular traumatic stress experienced by an individual following a racial encounter—symptoms of which often manifest itself in a similar manner to PTSD.
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“Most of the messages we receive from people seeking therapy feel they have or are currently experiencing race-based stress and trauma,” Mwakatuma and Nash explain. “It is safe to say this is extremely common.”
Research conducted by American psychologist Monnica T. Williams indicates that almost one in ten Black people in the USA become traumatised. When asked whether these numbers are mirrored for Black Britons, Mwakatuma and Nash tell me that in their experience these numbers seem fairly accurate.
“Although America is often held as an anomaly and it is a different type of experience, there are incredible similarities for Black British people. People say racism here is more insidious—but that is not to say the same rules do not apply. There are the same outcomes in terms of the Black community’s mental health and wellbeing.”
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It’s also essential to note that race-based trauma can be inflicted not only through violence and other explicit forms of discrimination, but also through acts of microaggression. “Most people will be affected by mental illness and times of crisis in their lives—but having to deal with these ongoing issues as well as daily racism and structures that are often catered against you is too much for most to deal with,” they explain. Continuous institutional inaction and ‘all lives matter’-esque counter protests contribute tremendously to feelings of hopelessness and compromised mental health.
Such feelings, Mwakatuma and Nash say, are amplified in children and young people, whose psychological lives are increasingly affected by toxic and violent environments online. “Children and young people are on the Internet more than any other generation,” they explain, “and we receive messages from parents saying currently their children are experiencing what they believe to be higher levels of anxiety and low mood. On one hand, as the violence towards the Black community that has existed for centuries becomes accessible online, it can create social pressure for structural change. On the other hand, if adults are feeling the mental wellbeing is being impacted, we imagine young people experience this on a higher level and we urge the government to adequately fund this research.”
If anything, it can be argued that lockdown has further deepened the divides within our society, whether that is a result of heated conversations about race with family or confronting friends who find attending BLM protests unethical. “People are exhausted; people are depressed, rightfully angry, anxious, I would say some are bordering on agoraphobic,” Mwakatuma and Nash say. “We know people are experiencing flashbacks to times they have experienced prejudice or violence based around their race. This should be seen and treated as a mental health crisis in the UK.”
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“Having to see yet another unarmed innocent Black man being murdered on the street in cold blood is triggering for people, not only on an individual basis (‘that could be me, or my brother or my dad’) but also for people outside of the community only just waking up— when we’ve seen racial injustice for a long time.”
Mwakatuma and Nash are working hard to reach their goal of not only raising awareness around mental health services—or the lack thereof—in Black communities, but also in creating a safe space for Black mental health. They have successfully raised over half a million pounds, all of which is being directed to connecting individuals with qualified therapists. With over 50 therapists, BMM has managed to reach over 50k people in the Black British community.
“We aim to work hard to normalise therapy within our community. We want to break the stigma around mental health in the black community and make quality mental health services accessible to as many black people in the UK as possible,” they explain. One of their primary missions is to encourage more funding into researching mental health for Black people—without hard evidence and data, treatments can not be improved effectively. “We are truly excited to change the face of Black mental health support in the UK.”