I was about 14 when I first experienced what I now believe was severe depression. I was living in London with my white mother; my father, who was my black parent, had died when I was seven and the family had been completely devastated by this. We had very little money and although my mother was exceptionally good at managing on a minimal income, the threat of bailiffs coming in and taking everything was persistent and terrifying.
As a family, we were very isolated. Interracial relationships were unusual in the 1950s and 60s. My father’s family were in Jamaica but we had very little knowledge of them and no contact details. My sense of identity was compromised; my father’s death meant the loss of direct access to black culture.
My mother, who had no friends to speak of and no other family, had retreated into her own depression, and some of her ideas, particularly around cleanliness and how we should conduct ourselves, were very difficult for me to deal with as a child. I remember talking to one of the neighbours about her unhappiness. I was 10 at the time and I was hoping she would be able to tell me what to do. When my mother found out, she was incandescent with rage. I had broken the number one family rule; you never talk about family. I remember thinking, ‘Alright, I’m on my own with this then,’ and feeling despair.
Once I was in my teens, life became impossible. I experienced racist bullying at school, and my home life was also intolerable. I had one close schoolfriend, but she was never able to invite me to her home because her mother, a supporter of the far right activist Enoch Powell, would have ended the friendship immediately. There were no safe spaces. I became more and more withdrawn. Eventually, at 18, I was hospitalised. I was given a choice of sorts: be here voluntarily or be sectioned.
Black patients on the wards rarely had visitors. I don’t recall seeing a single black family visiting a relative, not because black patients were unloved but because of the stigma associated with mental illness. There seemed to be far more shame in our communities - a sense that we had failed to be strong. I remember a black nurse telling me how ashamed and embarrassed he was to see me there; I had let everyone down, all other black people. His hostility was humiliating and scary. Additionally, in submitting to the institution – whether willingly or not – as black patients we were stepping outside of community and airing our problems to the white world, contributing to those stereotypes that said we were threatening or in need of containment. Detention on a psychiatric ward was capitulation; submission; weakness.
As children my siblings and I were told by our mother that if we were weak or did something wrong, we would be letting down all black people. Later I saw this articulated in fiction by writers of colour. In Meera Syal’s Anita and Me, for example, the central character, Meena, is told something similar by her parents; that any misbehaviour on her part will be viewed as typical of her race. It’s rooted in reality but it’s an unfair burden. It’s not really surprising that so many of us have mental health problems if individually, we have to carry weight of an entire community.
My mother visited just twice, once to take me out for the day and once when I wasn’t allowed home for Christmas. She couldn’t deal with my hospitalisation. The consequence for me was that once again I was very much alone. My schoolfriend went away to university. I was left behind.
I was in a hospital with a good reputation, but as is the case with all closed institutions, those who are perceived as alone are inevitably more vulnerable.
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Painting: Joy Yamusangie for Five Dials
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