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Why we need an anti-racist mental health movement
Why we need an anti-racist mental health movement

Why we need an anti-racist mental health movement

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Abeer Ansari on anti-racism and mental health

Earlier this year, I was travelling to Peru on an educational trip with a small group of university students. I was the only person who wore a headscarf. And when we landed in the small city of Tarapoto, I had to explain to border agents that my hijab was religious wear, which was especially difficult because of the language barrier. When I finally made it through and was reunited with my group, I felt embarrassed and out of place. I brushed off questions from the group because I felt it was unlikely that anyone would understand how stressed and alone the experience had made me feel. 

At that point, one of my classmates took me aside and told me that, as a Black woman, she had experienced racist treatment at the borders for as long as she could remember. She cautioned me against feeling like I didn’t belong and encouraged me to share my experiences. She also reminded me not to let my experience with security affect my confidence or my excitement about exploring Peru — that I belonged there as much as anyone else on the trip. Her support and openness made me feel less alone, but I continued to think about my experience. I thought about how common racism is in our everyday lives and how it affects the mental health of racialized people.

Racism and mental health tend to be treated as separate issues. I hear people talk about the progress that we need to make for our communities to become anti-racist or I hear them talk of building a country where everyone has their mental health supported. But I rarely hear people make the connection between the two. Unless we build anti-racisist communities, a country where mental health is supported cannot be realized. We need to talk more about how racist economic policies and social treatment can cause or worsen mental health struggles, about how racialized people often have to navigate a healthcare system that isn’t built with their experiences in mind, about how tough it can be to seek support from your community or the healthcare system when you don’t see yourself represented there. The truth is that there are no neutral participants in a racist society — it affects everyone, which is why everyone needs to speak up and do their part to change it. 

In my mental health advocacy work, I’ve come across a lack of understanding about how to talk about racism and its impact on mental health. People fear saying the wrong thing, which can lead to people not saying anything at all. But when we step back from conversations about difficult issues, they become impossible to tackle. We cannot make lasting progress in protecting people’s mental health while turning a blind eye to racism.

Mental health advocates must champion the voices of BIPOC leaders and advocates. They need to listen and make space for their stories and experiences to be heard. We also need to actively learn about our histories, the origins of our worldviews, and the way that racism and colonialism continue to shape our country. The burden of doing this work cannot fall on the shoulders of racialized people, which means all of us must commit to the ongoing, difficult work of unlearning the racism that is built into so many of our systems and learning how we go about building something better.

In our everyday lives, we can all actively listen to those who have faced discrimination and work to understand what our role is in supporting them. During my trip, having someone by my side who empathised with what I was going through made me feel more comfortable. I remember how on one occasion she told me that my hijab might slip off and we always looked out for each other as we explored the city. I realized then that people can empathize and take care of one another  no matter how different they are. Finding acceptance and understanding from someone who actively stood with me against oppression and discrimination protected my mental health on that trip. That solidarity is absolutely essential if we are to make meaningful progress with mental health.