AfroCanadian Reflections | Mental Health | Chapter 5 – Jacana Books

AfroCanadian Reflections | Mental Health | Chapter 5

Taraji P. Henson launched a charity on mental health in honour of her late father to help halt the stigma that surrounds mental health issues in the African American community and to provide support and awareness to the community. The foundation is called The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation (BLHF). It is named after her father, a war veteran, who struggled for most of his life with mental illness.

The actress said “I named the organization after my father because of his complete and unconditional love for me; his unabashed, unashamed ability to tell the truth, even if it hurt; and his strength to push through his own battles with mental health issues,” said Taraji P. Henson. “My dad fought in The Vietnam War for our country, returned broken, and received little to no physical and emotional support. I stand now in his absence, committed to offering support to African Americans who face trauma daily, simply because they are black.”

On many levels, Ms Henson is right. Afro-Carribean Canadians, African Americans and Africans struggle to share their mental health struggles with anybody. Mental health issues are real. With many of us struggling with low wages and inflated living costs, in-law drama, domestic abuse, emotional neglect, loneliness,  a troublesome spouse, naughty and disobedient children, a stressful work environment, obesity and so on, we all have issues with our mental health.

It just depends on how exaggerated it is.

In Africa, mental health is seen as a taboo. This is because we are brought up to be strong and able. The inability to carry on suggests we are weak. In many households, the occult is blamed for mental health issues. We need to know that unless we de-stigmatize this issue, it will continue to ravage our families and communities.

There is strength is having a conversation about our communal well being. Some issues we pray about, some issues we need to take care of. Our mental health deserves our attention. Mental health can show up in a myriad of ways.  It can show up as anger, anxiety and panic attacks, bipolar disorder, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression, dissociative disorders, drugs, eating problems, hearing voices, hoarding, loneliness, hypomania and mania, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), paranoia, personality disorder, phobias, postnatal depression and perinatal mental issues, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD),  psychosis,  self esteem, seasonal affective disorder,  self harm, sleep problems, suicidal feelings and tardive dyskinesia.

Some people with mental health struggles are locked away by their families in West Africa for years receiving no support or treatment. In our communities, we need to speak to one another, we need to reach out to one another.

One of my friends who kept the fact that her ex-husband was bipolar from her son was hurt when her son accused her of keeping that information from him. This is what happened. At some point before the marriage dissolved, the man had threatened to kill her, so she left him and got full custody. A couple of years later when the child was in junior high school, his father began to send him erratic texts and messages. His behaviour became dangerous which led to the son calling the Police.

Mental health is a rampant problem in Afro Canadian society as many of us are immigrants facing problems adjusting or making ends meet in a new society. According to the BLHF  website, one in five Americans suffer from mental illness. African Americans are the least likely population to seek treatment.

The Mind website reports that approximately 1 in 4 people in the United Kingdom will experience a mental health problem each year. It further states that 1 in 6 people report experience a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week.

In Canada, the Canadian Mental Health Association is the lead association in Canada that deals with mental health and mental illness. They promote and advocate through strong connections with policymakers, mental health consumers and their families, educators, the media, stakeholders and other service providers.  October 1-7  has been designated Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW). MIAW is an annual public education awareness campaign designed to help open the eyes of Canadians to the reality of mental illness. In Edmonton, you need the Canadian Mental Health Association Edmonton.

In a press release titled ‘Mental Health in the Balance: Ending the Health Care Disparity in Canada’, the report stressed that over half of Canadians consider anxiety and depression to be ‘epidemic’ in Canada, with that perception spiking amongst younger people, according to a survey commissioned by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). The policy paper calls for new legislation to address the unmet mental health needs and bring mental health care into balance with physical care. The survey further states that eighty-five per cent of Canadians say mental health services are among the underfunded services in our health care system- and the majority agree (86%) that the Government of Canada should fund mental health at the same level as physical health.

Lengthy waiting times to see a doctor because of chronic underfunding of community-based mental health services and what Ms Henson calls ‘cultural competency is explained further here: ‘African Americans believe that if we hold our suffering in, the feelings that plague us will go away. Asking for help is the last thing on our minds. Confiding in someone other than God is almost sacrilegious. So where does one go for help? When you mention the idea of therapy to a person of colour, we almost always respond with resistance and disdain. There are many reasons for these attitudes. Often, we are asked to seek help from someone who does not look like us, who cannot relate to our stories. We fear we are seen, but not heard because the listener cannot relate to our problems. But, the ability to relate to one another helps us feel understood, helps us to heal. How does one do that if we are branded before we even speak? Too many times our concerns, our issues, are ignored because, again, the listener cannot relate to our history, our struggles, our lives. African Americans are misdiagnosed and undertreated more than any other population in the country. Some practitioners believe that what we Black Americans experience is simply part of our “condition”. But, it doesn’t have to be that way’.

Together, let us break the silence in our communities. Let us break the silence by talking out loud about whatever our situation is. Let us break the silence by seeking help. Let us break the silence by reaching out to friends and family first and then to trained personnel who can guide, help and support us.




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