(This article is an expanded version of a reflection written for Taraki entitled ‘A Letter of Love For Men From Our Ends’).
Author’s note: I opted to use ‘mental difference’ as opposed to ‘illness’ in this article.
Recently I travelled back to the UK, to east London, the place I consider home after being away for six months because I live permanently in Lisbon, Portugal now. For me, it’s always so grounding to travel back, stay with my parents, and reconnect with my local ends (rough translation: hometown) where I grew up after we immigrated to the UK. My local ends, which roughly span from Ilford, Chadwell Heath to Gants Hill, are areas where I have a deep and intimate history – from specific locations to the people that live there. Part of my routine while visiting my ends is to meet up with my best friends, the men with whom I’ve been best friends since year seven in 2003. As always, it’s so beautiful to hang out with my best mates. We have a long history together, and there is something deeply grounding about navigating life together with your chosen set of people.
On our evening out together, we ended up at Nando’s (because where else would a set of east Londoners go?). There was so much joy in exploring our present while jotting in and out of conversations about the past – more specifically humourous points in our collective friendship. While the overall mood of the evening was of shared joy, laughter, and love, there’s always a heaviness which permeates our conversations. This heaviness comes from the fact there will inadvertently come a point in our conversations where someone will ask: ‘remember x, whatever happened to him?’
It’s at this moment, that I personally feel a level of anxiety because deep down inside I know there are only two expected responses to this, these are:
- ‘Yeah he’s fine. He works at x, and he recently bought a property…’
- Oh, him? Yeah urm so I saw him a little while back and the man’s lost his head and was sectioned…’
(I recognise the language and phraseology of saying someone ‘has lost his head’ isn’t the most appropriate or respectful way of describing the situation, but these are terminologies that are commonly used by people in ends. While there is work to be done in promoting more nuanced and respectful ways of describing mental difference, especially severe mental difference, in these moments I simply allow a non-judgemental space for folks to speak and express how they are feeling).
On my recent trip, the majority of times a person’s name was brought up, most of whom were either Black men or South Asian men, the second response was uttered – it was deeply heartbreaking. It’s so agonising to learn that someone who was your mate, someone you remember as a naïve joyful kid, has now been forced into a position of material precarity while their mental wellbeing is suffering. Not only have they been punished from a young age for being racialised men, but now they have fallen through the wide gaps that are systematically placed in order to create a pipeline of severe mental difference to prison. They are also being sectioned for prolonged periods of time without adequate support. Make no mistake, this is a cycle of constant incarceration that leads to worsening mental health, especially for Black men.
Amidst all this, you can’t help but feel a level of guilt for not having spotted early signs of severe mental difference in these boys, despite being a kid yourself. Learning about the situations of these men is really hard, especially because of my close proximity. While I don’t want to speak on behalf of the men in my communities who come from predominantly Black and South Asian backgrounds, I do want to contribute to this series because I see daily reminders of how damaging improper safeguarding and lack of care can be for racialised men.
The Stats Around Racialised Men, Mental Health & Criminalisation
The statistics for racialised communities and the damage that’s enacted due to improper safeguarding and care are quite telling. For example, NHS figures from 2020 revealed that Black communities in England were four times more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act than white people. An alarming trend that’s continued to increase over the years.
Looking at the data from a class-centric lens, the NHS data also revealed that detentions in the most deprived areas (areas with working-class populations) had the highest rate of detention per 100,000 population. In comparison to the least deprived areas (middle and upper-class populations), the rate of detention was more than three and a half times greater. All of this paints a picture that being racialised and poor can lead to incredibly difficult challenges when it comes to mental wellbeing and ultimately the quality of care that’s provided.
The Role of Preventative Community-Based Care
Having seen a high number of men from my communities experience such a harsh and punishing system marketed under the guise of ‘safeguarding’ and because I was let down by mainstream services, I actively sought out community-based care in my mid-20s after a lengthy period of severe mental difference in the form of anxiety and depression. Looking back, at the risk of sounding cliche, my fate could easily have followed the same pattern of undiagnosed severe mental difference, being sectioned, and ultimately criminalised.
This is why I was incredibly fortunate to have found Taraki and their peer-support spaces for Punjabi men. What I needed at the time was a culturally competent space to discuss what was on my mind, make new mates, be ‘less in my head,’ and ultimately feel less lonely – an experience that was heavily pronounced during my severe mental difference. I am deeply fortunate to have found these spaces three years ago. Equally, I am also incredibly fortunate to now organise and work in these spaces – for myself and other men in my communities.
While peer support has served a significant role in supporting my mental well-being I don’t want to over-romanticise this model of community-based care. As with any other form of care, peer support has its limitations, and it isn’t a magic pill to counter centuries of structural inequalities that create such disadvantages for racialised communities. With that being said, there’s something to be said about creating free-to-access community-based spaces that can serve as early preventative care for racialised men who have nowhere else to go for community-based support and social connections. Both of which are fundamental in providing good mental well-being support but tend to be under-valued and ultimately forgotten by mainstream services, much like these men.
Taimour Ahmed (pronouns: he/him) is a mental health consultant & facilitator. He is also also a qualified yoga guide who specialises in trauma-focused yoga. A lived experience advocate, He specialises in mental health at the intersection of key areas such as class, race & gender identity. His work in mental health is deeply-rooted in using a community-based approach.