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"It's an opportunity to raise awareness about the health of African, Black and Caribbean (ABC) communities across the country, and a vital chance to talk about something that still goes under discussed: their mental health."
"It's an opportunity to raise awareness about the health of African, Black and Caribbean (ABC) communities across the country, and a vital chance to talk about something that still goes under discussed: their mental health."

"It's an opportunity to raise awareness about the health of African, Black and Caribbean (ABC) communities across the country, and a vital chance to talk about something that still goes under discussed: their mental health."

For Black Mental Health Day, by Sope Owoaje
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Mental health in ABC communities.

Over the past month, people all over the country have participated in Black History Month, honouring the significant contributions Black Canadians have made and continue to make to our society. Along with paying tribute to a rich history that isn’t acknowledged often enough, Black History Month is an opportunity to raise awareness about the health of African, Caribbean, and Black (ABC) communities across the country, and a vital chance to talk about something that still goes under discussed: their mental health. 

Before we dive into the specific barriers that ABC communities face when it comes to their mental health, let’s keep in mind that getting help when you’re struggling is difficult for just about everyone in Canada — we face incredibly long wait times, a Byzantine healthcare system, and a serious lack of mental health education. Add to that the prevalence of anti-Black racism in Canada, which profoundly affects the mental health of ABC communities, and you have a system that is doubly stacked against Black people living with any sort of mental health struggle. 

To begin to address this issue, the city of Toronto, in partnership with the TAIBU Community Health Centre, recently launched a campaign to raise awareness about the impacts of anti-Black racism on mental health outcomes. A statement from the city explains that “experiencing systemic discrimination and microaggressions are social stressors that increase the risk of negative physical and mental health including anxiety, depression, suicide or suicidal thoughts,” and other serious health consequences. All of this creates a country where finding the right kind of support is nearly impossible.

As part of that campaign, today is the first Black Mental Health Day in Toronto — a day designated to discussing the ways that anti-Black racism and mental health intersect. That’s a great first step, but it’s just the start. Communities everywhere need to get loud about how stigma and shame still prevent too many people from speaking up, and about how our systems do not provide culturally appropriate support to Black people who are struggling.

As an African woman growing up in different parts of Canada, I became acutely aware of some of the stigma that comes with immigrating from another country, and the way that people treated me because of the colour of my skin. As a darker woman, I often felt that I faced more criticism than lighter skinned Black women — the impact of colourism playing another role in mental health outside and within ABC communities. It took me a long time to speak up about how this was affecting my mental health, but, once I did, I found it incredibly powerful. I want everyone to be able to speak openly about their experiences — about racism, mental health struggle, and the way the two of them can magnify one another.

If we want to create a country where people have true mental health support, we need to acknowledge the unique ways that society harms individuals, and, from there, create safe spaces where people can access culturally competent care with people who can relate to their experiences. I know from my mental health advocacy work that it’s difficult to get that conversation started, and that changing systems takes a long time. But I believe that we are capable of creating change. 

We can start by educating ourselves about mental health, and Canada’s relationship to anti-Black racism, and we can begin to move towards a healthier, more humane country by looking out for those around us, listening to them without judgement, and remembering that anyone can struggle with their mental health, that everyone is worthy of compassion. I’d encourage everyone to check out BeThere.org’s 5 Golden Rules, for a step-by-step guide to giving support in a safe way, and I’d encourage folks to look into the work that anti-discrimination groups are doing in your area. Building solidarity is absolutely essential if we want a future where everyone has equal access to mental health support. And it’s high time we recognize that building that future will save lives. 

Be proud of who you are and the beauty of your skin. Embrace your cultures, your languages, and your history. And remember to take care of yourself, and each other.