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Black History Month 2020: Discussing mental health in the Black community for World Mental Health Day

Written by London College of Fashion
Published date 10 October 2020

"I do believe that if we continue to speak about and normalise it for generations to come the conversation with get easier, and the understanding of it will be clearer for most." Sachan Popo-Williams

At London College of Fashion we believe it’s important that our Black community are authentically represented all year round, so we will continue to use our platforms and the space we have, to listen and learn, educate and celebrate. For World Mental Health Day, LCF staff member and alumna, Sachan, spoke with some recent alumni, staff and current students in a conversation about perceptions of mental health within the Black community and whether the fashion industry has a role to play.

What are your thoughts/feelings on the impact that the Black Lives Matter movement has had on mental health in the Black community?

Lloyda: I would say the movement has definitely highlighted the issues surrounding mental health in the Black community as it has opened the access to people being willing to have conversations or take actions concerning mental health. Generally speaking mental health issues aren’t something we speak a lot on in the community. We often speak about therapy with a low level of seriousness. Or not speak on it at all as we tend to live in a society that doesn’t really pay attention to people with mental issues. And if we do it’s usually too late. Even the word depression nowadays is used so loosely without a true level of understanding. We tend to throw the word around. When there are people actually going through issues, sometimes they are very close to home but we don’t notice them for one reason or another.

Sachan: The fact that we even have to reiterate that Black Lives Matter in the 21st century is a problem in itself, and the mental suffering that those directly and indirectly affected by it is a hard feeling to digest. BLM is not only the Black community’s problem but it’s the wider community’s issues that isolate it as just a Black community problem. I believe that mental suffering has always been around, and the recent movement has illuminated this, however Black health, well-being, suffering all of these things matter equally and, even though 187 years has passed since slavery was sealed in law as abolished in the UK, mentally we were never freed and this affects many peoples mental and emotional health to this very day.

Safeen: Well I guess I can only speak from my own personal experience as I can only imagine what other people are going through, especially where they’re right at the heart of this situation. So even though people weren’t involved directly or they weren’t in the heart of the situation, I do feel like they probably felt an ounce of what the family of those who lost loved one in the whole situation felt. This was during the last leg of uni and I felt very down, unmotivated so I just felt helpless because there wasn’t much I could do. I think the whole Black Lives Matter situation probably took a massive toll on a lot of people of colour, but one thing I will say is being at the protests was so inspiring, was so uplifting that I think that on the flip side being a part of a community that felt so closely knit, and so strong actually has a good impact on your mental health because you just remember that you’re not alone, and you feel like a sense of belonging to this community. So I think that there are two different sides to it.

Roisin: Mental health issues within the black community have always played a very prominent role however it seems they have been pushed aside or not acknowledged by others. I think the BLM movement has just highlighted how bad it really is, don't get me wrong it has definitely brought to light people who are whole heartedly supporting the movement and pushing for racial equality and for that I'm grateful. However with that being said it has also shown just how many racist voices, opinions and actions are still out there surrounding us. Possibly more than a lot of people ever realised. It’s more than enough to make us feel worthless like nothing will ever change for us and we don’t matter because there will always be the voices that see us as less than them, judge us without warrant, refuse our feelings and our pain, scream all lives matter in our faces even though they don’t believe ours do, cover up the deaths of our innocent for their own protection and most of all keep pushing us to believe our voices, feelings and experiences are too small to make the real change that is so desperately needed within todays society,

Ciaran: Thinking in a personal capacity – therefore, not as a monolithic embodiment of the Black experience – variable meanings and implications exist when blood has sown the seeds of social debate. Whether through alternative cognitive frameworks, muscular displays of solidarity or both, the consistent downpour of worldwide media coverage is irrefutable proof the gravitas of the moment subsists engrained in our shared consciousness.

On that basis alone, the BLM movement has significantly improved mental health through representation and awakening an appetite for change. Although, I question if anguish alone can sustain the hunger needed in the latest chapter on calls for reform, and if not, what impact will this have on the long-term wellbeing of the Black community. There's no rehearsal, we must not fall behind the wave of public sentiment.

Would you say that there can sometimes be a stigma around mental health in the Black community? What are your thoughts on this?

Lloyda: I certainly believe that there is a stigma around mental health in our community. There’s a stigma around mental health issues in the world in general. We live in quite a fast pace society, and a lot of us our brought up to ‘just go along with it’, which can be very mentally and physically draining. It’s an upsetting truth but we certainly need to address it and open more dialogues on mental health. I believe this will make people feel more relaxed to have conversations and open up if they are struggling with their health.

Sachan: Yes I agree, there is a stigma around mental health in the Black community, many Black people especially the older generations do not have the ‘current’ understanding of mental health and that people can suffer in many forms. The stereotypical version is that if you suffer from mental health you are mad and you should pray about it, when the reality of it is you may need professional help. I do believe that if we continue to speak about and normalise it for generations to come the conversation with get easier, and the understanding of it will be clearer for most.

Roisin: Yes I do believe there is a stigma around mental health within the black community I feel like instead of seeking help many resort to isolation and self medication to mask their pain and struggle. However I do feel like this is because the black community is seen in a negative light and portrayed in a certain way that many are forced to believe from society that they should’t have these emotions or they're weak, they have to be these big strong aggressive and emotionless personalities that deal with anything without struggle which in tail has led the black community feel like mental health concerns are taboo and something you deal with on your own.

Do you think that the Black community rely upon religion, faith and spirituality more than they do health care professional help?

Lloyda: Yes. Religion and faith are a big part of black culture. And to be honest one too many times we live certain things in the hands of faith hoping thing will eventually get better. Sometimes people just need professional help. With the stigma that mental health has in our community, I see why it can be hard for some to find help. Some families don’t speak about  healthcare, sometimes people may not know they have issues at hand/ how to start addressing them.

Sachan: Yes I think that this stems a lot from generational interpretation, when my parents, grand-parents and great-grand parents grew up, mental health meant someone was so ill they needed to be in a mental home/hospital, it wasn’t fully understood and nor was it discussed. There also wasn’t as many sub-categories to mental health as we have nowadays, therefore I think this notion as to ‘just pray about it’ or ‘that feeling will pass’ is something that needs to be ironed out in generations to come. I don’t think we can pass blame to those generations however getting them to understand it can be a challenge- it’s a learning process.

Safeen: Yes for sure, I was going to mention that actually. I was going to say that there are a lot of occasions where a Black child might show signs of being mentally exhausted or show signs of having mental health problems but sometimes, or in these occasions the answer might be just pray about it. Not to say that I am not spiritual because I am, but I think that part of being spiritual is learning yourself and learning your inner self and I don’t think that, that part of religion or spirituality has actually been explored enough in the Back community. I think people kind of work against, as soon as you mention mental health it’s like “woah no, no, no” and reactions like that, and actually I’m not entirely sure why but mental health is like physical health.

I don’t know why we haven’t really grasped that ideology yet, but if we inclined to look after our bodies we have to look after our minds. And I guess again it’s a case of, because they can’t see it that it’s not there, it goes back to whole spiritual thing because a lot of people are just like ‘pray about it’ but do you take the same steps you do to look after your mind that you do to your body? If you don’t, there are consequences, there are repercussions so I guess there is a taboo around talking about or having mental health problems.

Roisin: The black community does rely on faith and religion a lot more than professional health care but that’s because religion and faith hasn’t turned its back on the community. It’s something we have had from the beginning that has helped take away pain, sadness and fear. Where as we have seen on multiple occasions how professional health care has mistreated and failed the black community in more than one way and unfortunately it’s hard to trust something you may not feel will treat you like a equal human being like you deserve.

Do you think the fashion industry can play a part in society’s mental health today?

Lloyda: To an extent yes. As we are in the age of social media, many people are now influenced by what they see. Many people are becoming more self conscious about how they look now because of that in my opinion. We all want the latest looks, to follow the footsteps of the influencers we see almost everyday on different platforms. I think that can be mentally draining to be always wanting to ‘look’ a particular way. Our perception of perfection and beauty is so heavily influenced by the fashion industry. Which of cause can have different affects on people’s mental health. One can become very body conscious because they may not fit to the standards of beauty which is to some extent made by the fashion industry. We are often shown a very narrow range of body’s, size, shape, race etc. And I know from personal experience that can have an affect on someone’s mental health. On the other hand as a creative I know that fashion can be used as a form of expression for some, which can be therapeutic.

Ciaran:  Wealth does not negate responsibility. To add intrinsic value and make a difference within our highly saturated consumerist society, fashion brands must peer beneath their ornate products or sterile business models and realise mobilising an authentic community provides a creative catalyst for change. Deep rooted identity formation – for example, advocating for LGBTQ rights, selection of elderly models, or more broadly the climate challenge – provide fertile grounds incredibly rich in character and emotional intelligence. More importantly, these foundations pertain to issues of appropriate visibility and representation, consequently removing barriers through providing an elevated platform for discussion.

Roisin: Without a doubt the fashion industry can help play a part in societies mental health today, fashion is all about beauty, self expression and creativity. Fashion is one of the biggest industries and it effects more than we actually realise. It’s not just about the beautiful garments it’s the people we see wearing them, the face of a brand, the places they shoot/showcase, the shapes and figures of these people, the prices, fashion decides whether you fit in or you stand out. You grow up surrounded by what designers believe is beautiful and should be seen. That is what we’re led to believe is beautiful and how we all should want to be or embody.

Fashion contributes towards our confidence and self esteem on a daily basis even if you choose not to follow fashion. The fashion industry could help mental health by choosing more diversity giving more reality in what it shows. For the Black community we see the same types of models to represent us and it’s societies idea of beauty and what's acceptable as a person of colour. We also don’t see many people of colour making it to high places in the industry and having their creative voice shown and celebrated to the world. If the industry gave more opportunities to a vast range of POC just imagine how peoples mind set and view of themselves could possibly change. If there are more people that we feel we can relate to in the spotlight doing what we thought was impossible we will start to believe we really are capable of anything and no ones negative opinions or views can change that because we can see first hand these people thriving so we can follow in foot. However this is the same for all of society after all it’s not just POC that are affected by the fashion industry the entire world has been mis represented in some way or the other without inclusivity or exploration. Fashion has the ability to change how we view ourselves, our lives and our planet so why doesn’t it?

If you would like to share your work with us and enter a submission for the Black History Month project, please send it to us. Additionally, if you have any questions about the project or would like to share your story with us then please get in touch. Keep up to date with the takeover on the LCF Instagram using the hashtag #LCFBHM.

To find out more about how we are working with colleagues across the colleges please see UAL’s 10-point plan, which will enable us to make swift progress across the whole of the university.