Black Minds Matter: Liza Bilal in Conversation with Agnes Mwakatuma
For Mental Health Awareness Week, BRICKS digital cover star Liza Bilal sits down with Black Minds Matter founder Agnes Mwakatuma.
Words Liza Bilal
This article originally appeared in the BRICKS #9 ‘MAKE NOISE’ issue, which can be purchased at our online store here.
For Black people across the globe, the summer of 2020 brought with it a whirlwind of emotion. Sadness, exhaustion and fear of the violence going on around us, but also strength and joy in the solidarity we created from protesting in cities all around the world in the name of Black lives. In this painful period of change, we saw important discussions surrounding the mental health of the Black community finally taking place, and a turn in the right direction towards creating networks of support for the most vulnerable in our community.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Agnes Mwakatuma, co-founder of Black Minds Matter UK; an organisation that helps facilitate therapy and mental health support for members of the Black community. Not only are Black Minds Matter UK collating comprehensive mental health resources that are tailored to Black people, but they’re also highlighting the necessity for accessible support, especially for our most marginalised in society.
During our time together we discussed everything from growing up Black in the UK to racism in the mental health sector, how we can encourage healing in our community, as well as the amazing work BMM UK are currently doing and hope to continue to do. Plus, Agnes reveals what Black joys have helped her get through lockdown.
Liza: I wanted to know if you run into any kind of difficulties or learned anything new along the way about the mental sector?
Agnes: Definitely, I think one of the hardest things at the start was basically knowing where to find Black therapists in general. When we first started, we spent hours just going through every counselling directory possible trying to find Black therapists. One of the biggest hurdles that we came across was realising that a lot of Black therapists didn’t actually have their pictures up on their profiles. This was because they always tend to find a decrease in the number of bookings that they got. A lot of them will tend to just have a profile with their skills, a bio and just keep it very short and sweet, trying not to hint towards anything to do with their ethnicity.
I think it’s also because therapy is almost a luxury and can be really expensive. Sadly, not a lot of Black people can access therapeutic services privately. With unemployed rates higher amongst Black people in comparison to our white counterparts, it’s understandable that there are more non-Black people who seek therapy privately. It just became a lot difficult for therapists to find clients who look like them or understood their background, so a lot of the time they would conceal themselves in public. It’s nice to be able to give therapists a platform where they can truly be themselves, truly be seen and celebrated for the work that they do. They can also benefit from serving their community and that’s amazing in itself.
L:I wanted to highlight what you said about therapists not putting their pictures up again – it’s another way that racism really impacts us within the job sector. I was having a little bit of cruise and I was actually thinking about a book by Bell Hooks, it’s All About Love and it has a very famous quote that says “rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation”. I thought that was so interesting when thinking about creating spaces for Black people to be able to talk about mental health because there is this cultural stigma or cultural shame around talking about emotions and mental health in general. I want to know what kind of advice or what tips would you give to those of us that are trying to access that support?
When we first started, we spent hours just going through every counselling directory possible trying to find Black therapists. One of the biggest hurdles that we came across was realising that a lot of Black therapists didn’t actually have their pictures up on their profiles.
A: I think the first thing that you can remind yourself over and over again is that sometimes it’s not about the stigma of mental health that exists amongst your family and friends – it’s that a lot of people have been failed by the healthcare system in the U.K. Members of the Black community have lost trust in going down any kind of healthcare route especially in the UK.
We hear about all the figures to do with Black women giving birth and how many times they are failed by midwives and doctors, people just have a reluctance to even seek out mental health treatment because they don’t feel safe or their needs protected enough. They stand the chance of either being misdiagnosed, over-medicated, ignored or just not valued and given the kind of treatment that they truly deserve.
So when you are trying to educate the people around you about the importance of preserving their mental health, looking after themselves mentally and seeking out mental health support, it’s important that you do your research and try to find the safest spaces for them. Educate them on how many organisations are doing incredible work to cater to people like them and remind them that there are people out there who haven’t gone down the traditional and very eurocentric models of mental health and there are people out there who are willing to cater services to their needs. There are going to be spaces available where they can feel safe in and spaces that can allow them to start their journey towards healing.
It’s just restoring people’s faith in the mental health system in general and basically educating yourself on the different sorts of resources that are out there for different kinds of people in your lives. You might be Black and BMM might not be the right fit for you, but there may be another organisation that works and caters for the Black community which might be a better fit.
We hear about all the figures to do with Black women giving birth and how many times they are failed by midwives and doctors, people just have a reluctance to even seek out mental health treatment because they don’t feel safe or their needs protected enough.
Having awareness of the different places that you can signpost your loved ones to is super important, and reminding them of how incredibly beneficial it is to really look after your mental health and seek out as much support at the start of any mental illness without waiting until it gets worse. When you look at things like psychosis amongst Black people, we are nearly seven times more likely to be diagnosed with psychosis and so being able to have a positive effect on not allowing these figures to increase, or people’s signs and symptoms from worsening over time is helpful. it’s important that we encourage our loved ones to speak not just to us but to medical professionals.
L: Healing especially during this pandemic is so important for Black people considering the way that we’ve been disproportionately affected not because we’re more prone to this disease but because structural racism has made it that way, so there are so many different forms of healing that I think can be good and beneficial during this time. What kind of things have you maybe explored whether it’s spiritual avenues or things like journaling?
A: I genuinely think I’ve tried everything before I was comfortable in therapy – I tried everything from journaling to meditating to prayer. There were just a lot of options out there, different kinds of spiritual treatments that I’ve gone through to find the answer that works for me. Sometimes a little bit of everything works and sometimes, maybe just one thing works. Maybe sometimes certain things work at different stages of your life – it’s also about being open to the idea that your route towards healing is not always going to be smooth sailing. You are a work in progress. Just remembering that you are a fully formed human being who needs to be looking after all aspects of your life and especially as Black people at the moment with big discussions around racial trauma, but we’re such multifaceted human beings there are other things that we go through.
I mean, there are Black people who are just discovering so many aspects about their mental health that have just never been spoken about openly in our community, like ADHD for example. That’s something that we just never really encouraged more diagnosis and research into, especially in the Black community. Remember that there are so many different options for you and you should not feel ashamed if one doesn’t work or one doesn’t fit your cultural or traditional beliefs, just be willing to be open and do it in a very safe way. So, looking after yourself during your process because one of the dangerous things about the Wellness industry, in general, is the lack of safeguarding when it comes to looking after people. This is why at BMM we feel the safest thing to do for our clients is only work with therapists who offer medically proven treatments in line with NICE guidelines.
L: I mean a quick caveat is really important that you bring up kind of the Wellness industry and kind of how capitalism feeds into what people think of as self-care, which are things that are important most definitely you need to take care of your body and yourself and your body but I think people, it brushes over the fact that people do need actual adequate sufficient help in whatever way it is that they can receive it, our government is not providing that.
A: Exactly, people are deserving of that one to one quality support and mental health support. We’ve seen a lot of group therapy in the NHS but it’s nice that we’re taking the time out to ask for more Black people to be given access to specialised care because we truly do deserve it.
L: I wanted to just dive a little bit more into kind of the material effects as we’ve been talking about structural racism and how this affects Black people’s mental health. I wanted to ask if it’s not too personal, if you’ve had any similar experiences and how this has kind of affected you growing up as well?
A: I think uninvited hair touching was definitely one of them, and people’s ignorance when it came to my nationality in general and where I was born was the hardest one to accept. It made me upset because at that time, I was so proud of where I was from but the way people perceived it made me feel as though there was something to be ashamed of.
Through the years of growing up, there was always a part of me that was made to believe that I was from a country that was not worth respecting. I didn’t speak a language that was valued as an important language to learn and I think one of the hardest things about microaggressions growing up especially as young Black girls is the effect that it has on our self-esteem. The anxiety it causes and the level of code-switching that we have to be accustomed to at such a young age, having to constantly change yourself in many different ways just to please other people, to avoid further questions, the anxiety of showing up as yourself, as your full self at all times.
Growing up with that is quite difficult and then when you finally get to a comfortable stage in your life or age, looking back at those experiences can be quite painful because not only do you feel helpless, but you feel like you couldn’t protect that younger version of yourself. That burden sometimes is quite heavy to carry because you do feel helpless, almost mentally drained once you do realise that you’ve been through these things and you may have been taken advantage of or abused because of the colour of your skin.
L:When you don’t have the language at that age it makes it so much harder because then you don’t really know how to even express yourself or why certain things are really affecting you the way that they are. Once you get older, when you have the terminology, then that’s when a lot of these emotions can come back and things that you thought weren’t an issue become very much an issue. Or you realise that they’ve been an issue. That’s why it is so important to make these resources available. As soon as you realise these things, it’s like ‘well damn, who do I talk to about this’?
A: Yeah, and you’re kind of left with this past trauma to fend for yourself and then explaining it is so difficult to somebody that isn’t trained enough to understand the mind and how it works. They cannot safely allow you to tap into your past, it can be quite triggering because you can be gaslighted for trying to express the experiences that you’ve been through and sort of shamed for even bringing up the past. So, yes, it’s important to be around someone that really values what you’ve been through, understands and has probably got experience of going through microaggressions or various forms of racism. So, it is incredible how much therapy can really help people in the perspect.
Just because people don’t agree with you, doesn’t mean that you have to take on the burden of their own ignorance.
L: What kind of advice would you give to your younger self in that situation or people that are in a similar situation in educational institutions or in work?
A: If there was one piece of advice I would give to my younger self in these situations, it would probably be to hang in there. One day, I will find people that are my people and relate to me; just because people don’t agree with you, doesn’t mean that you have to take on the burden of their own ignorance. I wish I’d know that that was not my problem to deal with. I definitely wish I’d known how much I would grow and how many positive experiences I would have out of school that would allow me to see myself being represented in so many beautiful spaces. I wish I was comfortable and felt positive about the future and what that means as a Black woman because I think that would have probably saved me a lot of unnecessary heartache and anxiety growing up.
L: I’m very much the same I’m always thinking to myself ‘I wish I had said that, I wish I did this’, I can definitely see the ways but I definitely shrunk into myself dealing with things like colourism, also people kind of not necessarily having positive attitudes towards Africans in school at that time.
A: Yeah, exactly, and even amongst African people like my best friend was from Sudan, I know you’re from Sudan as well and like I remember some of the colourism that she went through growing up and how difficult that was for her. I also wish I had the strength and confidence to continuously tell her how beautiful she was and just sing her praises because it was tough growing up.
L: I just wanted to ask where do you hope to see Black Minds Matter expanding to in the future? I know that you are currently holding a 21K donor challenge which people should donate to by the way. How do you kind of want to utilise that in pushing BMM forward?
A: I think it’s always so important to reiterate how necessary it is for people to support organisations like our own because genuinely, without the support and the funding we are nothing. If we wake up tomorrow and don’t have the funding to pay for therapy sessions it would be very difficult for us to apply for any sort of government funding in general. So, the support is always greatly appreciated. I think our main focus at the moment is obviously apart from encouraging people to seek out mental health support and encouraging people to have healthy conversations around mental illnesses especially serious mental illnesses, it’s also that we want to continue to be able to secure 1,500 spaces a year for therapy. We also want to continue supporting our Black Trans brothers and sisters during their journeys and be able to support the Black Trans Foundation to grow because more than ever, the Black Trans community really do need all of us.
We would also love to support aspiring Black therapists because there aren’t enough Black therapists in UK. Out of 20,000, there are probably about 1,000 which is not enough to service the amount of Black people in the UK if needed. Becoming a therapist is a challenging and long process, the amount of barriers from financial to mental, that you have to break through are tough. Becoming a therapist at a very young age could be seen as a sign of privilege. So we would definitely like to support in changing that.
It’s not something that you can become just through University and even just the lifestyle of qualifying to become a therapist is quite strenuous. When you’re already from a community that suffers really badly from unemployment, poverty and housing disparities, it becomes very difficult to take on such a privileged course and be satisfied in it. We want to be able to support aspiring Black therapists by hopefully one day, creating a fund so we can help at least 20 Black people to become qualified therapists per year.
There’s a lot we’d like to do too, including lobbying so more Black therapists are available through the NHS because we’ve had a few NHS hospitals get in touch with us and basically say that they didn’t have any connections with a Black therapist and needed help finding one, which is quite scary. If you did have someone come in who may be from an African background who is facing issues that can only be understood by someone who understands those cultural and traditional barriers, it can be quite difficult to guarantee that their treatment will be effective. So, yeah, just continuing to encourage more Black therapists to be valued and respected and for therapy to be a form of mental health resource and treatment that Black people can safely consider seeking at some point in their lives.
L: I can’t stress to you how important mental health is to me and getting mental health help and how difficult it’s been for me even trying to get an ADHD diagnosis and things. I am in my third year [of university] but better late than never.
A: I’m so happy that you took that responsibility and took charge and are actually starting to look after yourself and find ways that work for you because at the end of the day you should be your number one priority and you should really push for better resources and just the overall improvement in your wellness you deserve that for yourself.
L: My last question, what Black thing has brought you joy over lockdown?
A: Mine has been WizKid’s new album, which has really sparked joy in my life and pepper soup. That has now become my favourite ritual whenever I feel like I need a little slice of home or just need to feel grounded or simply enjoy some time to myself– it’s always pepper soup for me. It’s the one thing that I feel like I really take my time to enjoy during these crazy times.
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