People Are Using Art To Start Important Conversations About Mental Health

BuzzFeed News spoke to artists about why there needs to be more conversations about mental health among black women – a demographic for whom there has been hardly any research.

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Kirsty, a 24-year-old black British woman, had been suffering with depression for years before getting any support.

It was only after her mum died earlier this year that she was offered therapy through her GP – but by then she had already spent a long time dealing with her mental illness alone.

"It has been very traumatic for me," Kirsty, an illustrator from south London who preferred to reveal only her first name, told BuzzFeed News. "I went through a long stage of depression and I didn't receive as much support for it as I thought I would, so that was a bit difficult as I had to deal with most of it on my own."

Kirsty, who has enjoyed drawing ever since she was a child, said her mum had always encouraged her to follow her dream of becoming an illustrator. But after her mum passed away, Kirsty stopped drawing and fell into an even deeper depression.

When a friend encouraged her to take up her hobby again, Kirsty realised art helped her to deal with the mental health problems she faced. "Art helps me to express my emotions and how I'm actually feeling," she said. "It's my therapy, basically."

Kirsty's artwork will form part of an exhibition in London that aims to create a space for black women to talk openly about mental health. Unmasked Women, which showcases artwork by young black women, was curated by Nicole Krystal Crentsil, a 24-year-old assistant project manager from north London. She has also experienced mental health problems, but was repeatedly turned away when she asked for help.

"I too found it hard to talk about my own issues," Crentsil told BuzzFeed News. "Being turned away by local authorities, public services, even friends and family who didn't understand what I was going through – I simply don't want that to happen to anyone."

The existing research into the issues faced by African-Caribbean people in the UK when it comes to their mental health is concerning. According to a 2013 NHS report, African-Caribbeans in England, especially young people, are more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act – forcibly admitted to hospital, and treated without their consent – than their white counterparts.

They are also more likely to be diagnosed with severe mental illness, and up to five times more likely to be diagnosed with and admitted to hospital for schizophrenia. Factors such as living alone and unemployment mean black mental health patients are more likely to be readmitted to hospital.

The stigma associated with mental illness together with racial discrimination can make a person's symptoms worse. And a fear of coming up against institutional racism is thought to be one of the reasons black people are reluctant to engage with services.

Authorrising Zine, a photography project that explores mixed-race identities, will also be displayed at the Unmasked exhibition. It was created by Gabriela Chase, 23, who believes racism plays a crucial role in mental health for black people.


Chase, whose father is black, said she was only 13 years old when she was stopped by the police and cautioned under the Terrorism Act while waiting outside a station for her friends.

"We were standing outside a station in Croydon, southeast London, and [ended up] waiting for an hour and a half because our friends were running late and that's when we got approached by police because they said we looked suspicious," Chase told BuzzFeed News.

"It was so random because we weren't doing anything. I told my dad and he just laughed at me. He didn't believe that I would experience that because I wasn't so obviously black."

Chase added: "But this is just a normal thing for black people to just walk around the street and know that you don't have to do anything for the police to come up to you."


In 2015 a study carried out by The Independent found black people were more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than members of other ethnic groups.

The findings also showed that black people were up to 17 times more likely to be targeted for stop and search than their white counterparts in certain parts of the UK. Less than 25% of these searches resulted in an arrest.

Although the majority of people in the UK access mental health services through their GP, this is not the case for African-Caribbean people. Black people are more likely to access these services through the back door, like the courts or the prison system, or through community treatment orders.

However, the statistics and research specifically on black women living in the UK are scarce. Cal Strode, a spokesperson for the charity Mental Health Foundation, told BuzzFeed News there needs to be more research that focuses on the experiences of black women. She also said "inequality and discrimination are key drivers of mental health problems" for black women living in the UK.

"Black women are more likely to be exposed to experiences and stressors that undermine their mental health, meaning a higher likelihood of experiencing mental health problems and difficulties accessing services when they do," she added.

Discrimination in the workplace is one such stressor. Last year a study by the Trades Union Congress showed that black employees with degrees earned an average of £14.33 per hour, while their white equivalents earned an average of £18.63 for the same amount of work. Around the same time, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report showed that nearly a quarter of all graduates are over-qualified for their jobs, but for black African graduates this figure rises to 40%.

There is also a lack of cultural awareness within mental health services, Strode said, which makes it harder for black women to get the right help. "If they do access services, mental health problems are less likely to be detected and more likely to be misdiagnosed."

This ties into some of the troubling experiences some black women have reported when seeking help for their mental health. Heather Agyepong, 26, who has struggled with mental heath in the past, told BuzzFeed News that a therapist she went to see was very dismissive and made assumptions about her culture.

During her first therapy session, before being asked hardly any questions, Agyepong said she was taken back by comments that included "Oh, a lot of African [people] have bad relationships with their parents, it's really common" and "You probably had an avoidant relationship with your mother, so when you were crying as a baby she probably left you."

"She made such quick comments, and nothing was unpacked... She never even considered other reasons of why I was depressed," Agyepong added.

Findings show that black people are more likely be given medication rather than offered talking therapy. Although cultural misunderstandings during therapy can lead to unintentional racism and prevent the person from getting the help they need, the NHS-funded psychological therapies programme doesn't currently give people the option to choose which counsellor or therapist they'd prefer to talk to.

To get around this, 25-year-old Sait Cham recently launched an app called Recovr, which aims to help young black adults with mental health problems find professional treatment from black therapists and counsellors.


The app will connect users with people they can relate to, which is something that Agyepong and other women have said would be perfect for them. "It was like a godsend," she said. "I've been referring people to that because when I first saw it I thought it would be perfect for me."

Alegría Adedeji, the digital communications and community manager for Recovr, told BuzzFeed News that there are several issues black women face in the UK in terms of getting help for their mental health problems.

For example, in some African and Caribbean cultures mental health isn't discussed. But when it is, she said, people are told to "pray it away" or that "life is supposed to have its challenges", and that "you'll learn a valuable lesson at the end of it all".

Adedeji also said that being both black and a woman can mean experiencing sexism as well as racism, which are both drivers of mental health problems. "This intersection we all face, and as you can imagine, it lends itself to a special brand of hardship. And this is without the inclusion of equally important intersections of sexuality and/or religion," Adedeji said.

Between the ages of 16 and 19, Agyepong said, no one had any idea that she was crying every day. "[It got so bad] I had to drop out of sixth form," she said. And, like many people living with mental health problems, she decided not to tell anyone about her problems for several years – not even her close family or friends.

However, her bubbly, funny, and lively personality meant people had a hard time believing that there was anything wrong with her.

"People didn't accept that I had depression," she said. "I was quite the joker in school and university so no one really believed me, [the rest assumed I could only be exaggerating]."

Agyepong's photography project, called "Too Many Blackamoors", will also be shown at the Unmasked Women exhibition. It's about an orphaned West African princess, Lady Sarah Forbes Bonetta, from who in the 19th century was presented as a gift to Queen Victoria when she was 8 years old.

When researching Bonetta's life Agyepong said she was surprised there was hardly any mention of the gender, race, or psychological issues a young black girl being taken into a white royal family was likely to face. At the time, Africans were viewed as subhuman and uncivilised compared with Europeans.

In Agyepong's photographs she uses Bonetta as a template together with her own personal experiences to challenge the narrative of the strong, resilient, independent black woman, which can be a burden.

"When I was reading about her life, it sounded really rosy and as though she had a great life, but during that time there were obviously issues around gender politics, and about race, but a lot of that information seems to be missing when we talk about black women," she said. "Even on TV, it's always about them being strong or feisty, but it's never about them being vulnerable."


Agyepong hopes her art will help black women talk about why they might feel the need to pretend they're OK, even when they're not. "I hope that my work will help black women to be a little bit vulnerable, be honest with their feelings, and encourage them share their experiences," she said.

Crentsil said that she hopes her Unmasked Women exhibition will help encourage more organisations to find solutions to the problems black women face in relation to their mental health.

"Ideally, if I am able to change the mindset of various community groups regarding black mental health, maybe it would induce changes in policy with the way in which it is treated," she said.

"There are so many pressures that young black women deal with yet there are so many few avenues to discuss and talk about how to address these pressures," Crentsil added. "I especially want more young women to know that it's okay not to be okay."


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