Who Said It Was Simple? Race, sexuality, gender and mental health

Plan to Thrive is excited to feature this article by Karen Larbi, originally a speech presented at GMB London Regional Equality Forum’s Mental Health @ Work Training Day on 19 May and 23 November 2016.

AudreLorde_BeeswaxGoatskull“But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.”
– ‘Who Said It Was Simple’ by Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde often described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. She dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing the injustices of racism, sexism, and homophobia.

As one of the mothers of black feminism, she often discussed how she was often made to feel that she needed to split up the different parts of herself to engage in different forms of activism. In her feminist activism, she was made to feel like she needed to negate her racialised experiences. In anti-racism organising, she needed to ignore her womanhood and sexuality and how these impacted on her experience of marginalisation and discrimination. And like Audre Lorde, many LGBT+ people of colour are made to feel that they need to shed their racialised and class experiences in social and political organising around LGBT+ issues.

I mention this because in my experience of navigating the mental health system, I’ve also often felt that I need to split up and negate the different parts of my identity when speaking to GPs, psychiatrists and counsellors about my mental health problems.

I was initially diagnosed with mild to moderate depression when I was 17. Over the next decade, I received other diagnoses such as depression and anxiety, clinical depression, severe depression and dysthymia, which is described as a serious state of chronic depression, which persists for at least two years, and is less severe and acute than major depressive disorder.

I went straight to university after completing my A Levels but it took me seven years to complete a degree which should have been completed in three years. During this time, I waited around two and a half years to receive an assessment appointment at my local psychological services unit, only to be told that my symptoms were more likely caused by problems adjusting to university than by mental health problems. I waited a further two to two and a half years to receive my first appointment for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

During this time I was put on various medications at varying dosages and my condition continuously fluctuated. At its worst moments I was unable to study, write essays and take exams, and I suffered multiple incidents of sexual violence.

Going back to my previous points about identity. In appointments with GPs and other mental health professionals, I was never asked “what happened to you?” Instead, mental health professionals were just interested in asking “what’s wrong with you?” They were only interested in my symptoms and prescribing medication. I wasn’t asked if I had experienced sexual or physical violence, given any definitions of what those were, or asked what the impact on me was. I was never asked about my sexuality and its impact on me. I was never asked how I felt about growing up black in a white society. I was never asked how it felt to grow up in a religion that condemned my sexuality and treated me like a second class citizen because I was a woman. I was never asked how growing up poor affected my mental health. All they wanted to know about were my symptoms.

When I did guide the direction of discussions to the possible causes of these symptoms, these were glossed over and treated superficially. For example, I remember discussing with my CBT therapist a specific ongoing experience I had which was related to the colour of my skin. She completely dismissed my experience, making me feel like I was being paranoid and irrational, like I had a chip on my shoulder, like my feelings didn’t matter. Another therapist failed to help me address in any detail my experience of sexual violence and its impact on my mental health. Because the causes of my symptoms were only superficially addressed, it took me several years to realise that these issues had had a deep impact on me, which slowed down my recovery and healing.

There was no signposting to specialist services for LGBT+ people or survivors of sexual violence, and there is a lack of specialist services for survivors of classism, religious abuse or racism. However, we know that sexual violence, homophobia, classism, religious abuse and racism are traumatic experiences that diminish mental and emotional wellbeing. We know that living in a world that does not value difference causes deep wounds.

This leaves people in oppressed groups feeling like they are imagining things, have no right to their feelings and causes the suppression and negation of real and valid emotions. It leads to poor outcomes such as drug and alcohol abuse, chronic and severe mental health problems, and suicide. We know that LGBT+ people are at higher risk of suicidal behaviour, mental health problems and substance misuse and dependence than heterosexual people. This gap is even greater for ethnic minority LGBT people and those with disabilities.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. I have benefited greatly from having a therapist who took a keen interest in what I had to say about my experiences of being a black bisexual woman. Who made an effort to understand my religious background. Who actively listened to my experiences and encouraged me to delve deeper into them and the impact they had on me. I have also benefited from participating in online and social groups for LGBT+ people of colour where we share our positive and negative experiences, support and witness one another. I have benefited from reading books, blogs and articles, listened to podcasts and watched videos where people with lived experience, experts and professionals discuss how to heal from trauma and take a trauma-focussed perspective. Where people discuss what it’s like to live in an oppressive society, what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong and how to practise radical self-care and self-love.

I have benefited from having frank and honest discussions with colleagues about what it’s like to live in a body that has and continues to be oppressed in a society that doesn’t value difference. We live in a society where we are told that the height of racial equality is not to see race, to be colour-blind. However, by not seeing difference, we risk negating and failing to understand people’s lived experience. We risk forcing people to split off parts of their identity to make them more palatable to us, to reduce our discomfort about how we ourselves hold oppressive biases and beliefs.

However, it’s vital that we recognise the different aspects of people’s identity, especially when it affects their mental and emotional wellbeing. It’s important to actively listen to people’s experiences with our whole body. We need to ask probing questions to help us understand where people are coming from. What has happened to them. How it impacts their mental and emotional wellbeing. How it limits or inspires them.

It’s life-changing and life-saving to hold space for one another, to witness each other, to understand and empathise when they feel they don’t belong. It’s important to provide safer spaces where people can express their thoughts and feelings about their identity and experiences without fear of being shut down or dismissed. It’s important to validate what people say about their own lives. Finally being listened to when I talk about my difference has changed my life and has given me hope that I can heal. Because as Audre Lorde said,

‘It is not our differences that divide us.
It is our inability to recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences.’

Karen LarbiKaren Larbi  has a Bachelors degree in Law and Social Anthropology from SOAS, University of London, which ignited her passion for human rights and social justice. She currently works in the Social Marketing and Children & Young People’s teams at Time to Change, which is a growing movement of people changing the way we all think about mental health problems. Karen has a keen interest in activist self-care, alternative spiritualities and intersectionality, with a particular interest in the experiences of black people within the mental health system.

For more from Karen Larbi see Building Communities of Resistance on the Campaign Bootcamp blog. Audre Lorde poster graphic by Beeswax Goatskull.

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