When Mental Illness Strikes A Black Man

Where I come from (by that I mean my heritage), mental illness and madness might as well be the same word.  Where I come from, there is not a lot of tolerance for depression or anxiety, let alone bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Where I come from, mental illness is often equated with superstition, being 'bewitched', evidence of marijuana or something for those unfortunately classified as the low of society!

In short, mental illness is not something that my heritage has a lot of patience for.  In fact, mental illness is equated with unforgiving shame.

I am a black British man, of African heritage, living in the UK.  For generations the black man has been seen as the one who has endured hardship, whether slavery, war, injustice, racism, apartheid or poverty. The black man is seen as the one who got through these traumas and still survived.

A black man diagnosed with depression say, can be seen as a weak man looking for sympathies that will earn him none.  What should cause a black man to be diagnosed with anxiety when his distant cousins abroad are dealing with more pressing matters such as feeding his family in the face of war or some epidemic?  Our heritage has not got patience even to wait for a reply for their question.

There is no time for "let’s talk about what is bothering you."  In fact, did someone say "bothering"?  Maybe the black man needs a reminder of who he is. In ancient of days, his great great grandfather went through gruelling initiation ceremonies in transitioning from boyhood to manhood. In other words, it is all about getting a grip, MAN!

In fact, how many brothers are even going to open up in the first place?  The manhood black pride will not allow it.  Besides it is not culturally acceptable.  Which black man would go to a counsellor?  Besides there is a mistrust of society in such matters, ‘a them versus us’ culture. Unless he is likely bound and gagged to the counselling couch!

Mental illness is no one size fits all, especially where a black man is concerned.  It is a very serious taboo, and that is not taking into account the usual mental illness stigmas everyone faces.  Also being in a Western society, where the black man is seen as one who always has to ‘prove’ himself, mental illness is one of the worse things that could happen to a black man.

And so I found myself in my mid twenties, with something I had never conjured up in my worst possible nightmare; a diagnosis of psychotic depression.

I had been born into a ‘middle class' African family.  My dad being an engineer, my mother a health professional.  I was also the first born and a son. I was born in the UK too.  The latter in itself meant I had lost all right to dare think life could be hard.  In other words, I had ticked all the right boxes for a good start in life.

To crown it all, I had a lightning brain.  I was already reading Jane Eyre by 7 or 8, and knew the capitals of most countries in the world by 10.  The future looked bright as an orange African sunset.  It was unfathomable that anything could possibly go wrong for a bright intelligent guy with such good prospects.

But then I had to go collapse at a London airport. By this time, life had been going according to every well laid plan. I had ‘proved’ myself by discrediting any negative labels of the black man, by landing myself a good job.  I was already on the housing ladder, even sporting a new car.  However a spanner had hit the engine of life.  My fiancé abruptly broke off our engagement. I was devastated. My parents by that time were living in Africa.  I was now on my way to see them, to get over the pain of a long-term relationship.

At the airport, I was getting ready to board. The next thing I know, I was being wheeled out of the airport. I blanked out into oblivion, waking up to the beginning of my nightmare of nightmares. I found myself in a mental hospital. Confused, I tried to make my way out.  I was pinned down and administered a shot that sent me back into another abyss of oblivion.

Over the next 18 years, I was to find myself a permanent fixture in the mental health system, being given one diagnosis after the other, prescribed one drug after another.

Understanding culture and heritage has its own role when one is trying to reach a diagnosis of mental illness.  And today, that is thankfully being understood more and more in the mental health system.  For Africans, for example, a ‘normal’ conversation sometimes involves raised voices with exaggerated gestures, especially with the hands!  One could easily think there is a fight ensuing, only to find two people casually exchanging a feast of words and merely having a great conversation.  That is the way a lot of Africans speak, especially from my own particular heritage.

To an onlooker perhaps, such boisterous animation is strange, easily open to misinterpretation, such as aggression or worse violence especially when the language spoken is foreign.  But that is not what I want to talk about today, because there is a balance on both sides, and much to explain.

When mental illness strikes a black man, there is a great deal to lose.  That is not to say there is not a lot to lose in other cultures; of course there is.  But the odds are stacked high for the black man. Even the black heritage is not so compassionate, as I said earlier, and sometimes may not want to be. 

For example, how many women, especially in my particular African heritage, would even want to consider dating a man who has mental illness on his medical records?  To be honest, one in a million. Because and especially in my own African heritage, the security checks, as I call them, conducted by her family, would unearth even the faintest evidence of mental illness in the family, and consequently would forbid any future union!

There is also increasing evidence of inequality among black people in mental health in the UK.  There are growing supporting evidence that black men in Britain are 17 times more likely than white counterparts to be diagnosed with a psychotic illness. Guess what my final diagnosis was?

25 years ago, the guidelines, procedures and ethics were a lot different from today.  I often wonder that if it had been today, I probably would not have found myself straight in a mental hospital for fainting in an airport and for speaking a ‘strange’ language.  The strange language being my parents’ mother tongue!  I may not have had to go on medication that my body quickly became dependent on.

Thankfully today, I have defied all odds. I met that one in a million lady who married me in spite of what labels, culture, heritage and society were ready to hand out.  I also walked away from the mental health system 18 years after my initial diagnosis with a clean bill of mental health, free from any medication. 7 years on, I have not had any recourse to any psychiatric medication or treatment. I remain fully well and mentally fit.

Thankfully, I am not bitter; just intrigued on how I got my initial mental illness diagnosis in the first place.  What happened at the airport on that fateful day that hastily wheeled me locked up into a psychiatric unit? To date, I have no answers. 

I am glad I have a story of hope to share. I am glad that, as a black man, I can defy the norms of culture, heritage and societal labels and show that it does not make me any less of what I truly am on sharing my story of those forbidden two words, and for being bold to do so.

We are so proud that Chuck shared his story with us. It's a fascinating insight into mental illness seen from a different viewpoint. Has the colour of your skin affected how your own mental illness was perceived by others? Would you like to share your own story? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow Chuck and his 'one in a million wife' Zoe at their website www.defyingmentalillness.com. Incidentally, Zoe wrote a blog for Men Tell Health last year. It is fascinating to see the other side of the same relationship which you can read right here.