The whiteness of wellbeing
Deputy Editor Neha Shaji addresses the taboo surrounding BAME Mental Health
People like me don’t sit down, don’t stop with the coffee and cigarettes, our hands don’t stop drumming a frantic, feverish tune on every table. You’re smart: you know it’s a cultural thing. Them, there, far over there in Asia, these cultures don’t admit to struggling with their mental health because it’s a taboo, there, over there, far away. Over there, their mothers tell them to shut up about being anxious, to keep quiet, to become a doctor – unlike those over here who are comparatively liberal with diagnoses and admittance of wrestling with the self.
But that sweeping, stereotypical assumption is not even a quarter of a heartbreaking equation that slides under the whiteness of wellbeing initiatives. It is facile and undemanding to chalk it up to an Othered notion of social relations as the reason why BAME people may suffer mental health issues yet not feel as willing to speak about it as publicly, or talk about diagnoses in cafes and bars. This is not a diasporic piece about strict fathers saying depression is a phase, this is not a Westernised narrative of a stifling desi familial enclosure. A 2018 review found that South Asian women were a group at high risk for suicide, in comparison to European counterparts. Yet the British Journal of Psychiatry finds that Asian/British Asian ethnic groups were less likely to seek psychological or psychiatric help for struggles around wellbeing.
Cultural relativity is paramount: whilst mental health should not be relegated to the assumption of a cultural taboo, there are still cultural barriers to being open about mental health
I don’t have a scientific answer to this, except to say that relegating the statistic to cultural taboo does nothing but expose an Orientalist perspective on mental health that refuses to face the unique struggles people of colour face in this country, or the utter lack of wellbeing facilities who are both understanding and equipped to deal with people who want help. It is easy to split the narrative into two: I’ve had this said to my face before. That there are two actualities to mental health. One, a medical, scientific, diagnosable struggle – regardless of where or what or why. The second, a “natural” result of struggle, an expected consequence of existence and resistance, a human cost you pay to live in a world built on fragile uneven structures.
And the discourse around BAME mental health issues is a matter of cause and effect, of buying dignity and selling gratification. A second year Business student I spoke to said they have “all the symptoms and none of the diagnoses. I did seek help – there wasn’t an issue there. The issue came when they said my feelings were because of how I felt about being racially abused on the street eight months ago. As if nothing had happened in my life since then. And so, I feel awkward when my friends talk about their diagnoses or how they get mitigation while I scramble to finish my essays through depressive episodes: it’s a conversation I don’t feel able to join.” And nor can I.
How can I pet the friendly therapy dogs on campuses when everything I feel is consigned to a ramification of breathing against the direction of the wind? How do you expect me to participate in wellbeing initiatives and sign posters and pledges when everything I experience, physical or mental, is somehow a natural consequence of cycling uphill across gravel? This transactionary diction when it comes to the mental wellbeing of those racialised as other leads to an exclusion, leads to wellbeing sections and waiting rooms staffed and inhabited by white people. I would walk in, but I want to be welcomed and encouraged. I want to see a person across the table who understands that struggle does not come naturally as breathing. Who will understand that often physical symptoms – are not a consequence of racism but rather a symptom of the damage it has caused.
Your therapist is white. You’re not. Perhaps this may not matter, perhaps this may not be seen to matter. However, the decolonization of wellbeing doesn’t deal in no-matters and perhapses. And cultural relativity is paramount: whilst mental health should not be relegated to the assumption of a cultural taboo, there are still cultural barriers to being open about mental health. I did not know a difference from a panic attack and just feeling a bit off. However, there is no metric that states those who are open to speaking must evidently be struggling more: this is what leads to the assumption of strength. Strength in itself is racialized: look at the eugenicist theories of the colonial period, where races were ranked on physical and emotional attributes. These theories are widely dismissed these days. So why are brown and Black women perceived as somehow stronger? Endurance is not a skill. To endure is to suffer in silence. This is not an advantageous characteristic; this is a symptom of a hostile environment.
Aim to decolonize mental health rather than prioritising only those who can publically say that they are anxious
Don’t tell me I’m strong, I’m baby. Strength is not a given: regardless of what you are racialized as. Strength is a facade built upon colonially manufactured ideals of Biblical struggle narratives, of turning the other cheek and standing straight. But if you keep turning cheeks, eventually your face gets bruised. And your bones break. And so on, and so forth. Aim to decolonize mental health rather than prioritising only those who can publically say that they are anxious. Aim to make wellbeing initiatives, both on campus and off: more inclusive, more understanding, more welcoming. Don’t tell me I’m strong, I suck sugar cubes, watch cartoons and practically refuse to eat vegetables: I’m no stronger than your white friends. Think about why people like me don’t sit down, and don’t chalk it up to an upbringing you constructed based on narratives, and understand how blindingly white and unfair the system is.
Header Image: Ali Yahya (UnSplash)