Did you know yesterday was a historic FIRST day in Ottawa?

Thanks to the work of the Somerset West Community Health Centre and inspired by similar work in Toronto,  Mayor Jim Watson declared yesterday the first ever Black Mental Health Day in the city of Ottawa. “…March 2nd, marks the first annual Black Mental Health Day, recognized by communities across Ontario. This important day not only raises awareness of  Black mental health, but brings together people and organizations across sectors to share ideas and solutions,” stated the Mayor in his proclamation.

Why does a day dedicated to the mental health of Black communities and individuals matter?  Because it supports the overall focus of mental health initiatives specific to Black communities that will in turn ensure they receive adequate care to thrive as contributing members of our society.

First, let’s start with some important definitions:

The Government of Canada defines mental health as “Mental health is the state of your psychological and emotional well-being. It is a necessary resource for living a healthy life and a main factor in overall health. It does not mean the same thing as mental illness. However, poor mental health can lead to mental and physical illness.”

This differs from mental illness, which is defined as “the reduced ability for a person to function effectively over a prolonged period of time because of: significant levels of distress, changes in thinking, mood or behaviour, feelings of isolation, loneliness and sadness, and/or the feeling of being disconnected from people and activities. Canadians affected with mental illness may not be able to cope with the simplest aspects of everyday life. They may need help to regain a healthy emotional balance in their lives. Mental illness usually begins during adolescence and young adulthood. However, mental illness can be experienced by people: of all ages, of all cultures, from all educational levels, and from all income levels.”

What could impact how we perceive mental health?

Amongst many barriers for mental health care, stigma is a significant one. Stigma defined “Refers to prejudice and discrimination toward people with substance use or mental health problems; these negative attitudes and behaviors can lead to a person feeling undesirable and ashamed”.  Although stigmas are present in all communities, there are some specific to Black communities associated with cultural conditioning and upbringing that can challenge the ability to identify and access care.

Have you heard someone in your life repeat one of these stigmatizing statements?

– Therapy is only for crazy people

– Mental health tools are in contrast with religious beliefs

– Seeking therapy is you admitting there’s something wrong with you (shame)

– Mental illness and mental health tools are “white people” things, Black communities don’t need or have the same issues or tools

– There are no Black practitioners – psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, mindfulness etc.

– There are no Black mentally ill individuals

– Substance abuse (addiction) is just something you need to stop, you’re weak if you can’t

– You’re weak if you admit to having mental health issues and mental illness – you’re not strong enough to deal with it on your own

– It’s the parents/partner/family/church that should be able to get you through mental health issues, not a stranger

We know that Black children can experience discrimination and the effects of racism overall including during their schooling years.  As you can imagine, this can negatively impact their mental health. As parents and caregivers of Black children, understanding what affects mental health is crucial in our ability to support our children.  Being self-aware and taking ownership of our own mental health supports the ability to model the tools that our children need to have their best mental health and thrive. It is simultaneously essential for non-Black allies in our communities to seek to understand the impacts of anti-Black racism on mental health so they can:

– Help work towards community solutions to access mental health that is representative of all communities, including the practitioners offering support

– Support their neighbors, friends & family that may be impacted negatively by racism

– Support co-workers by identifying damaging behaviours and structures towards Black people defined as “emotional tax”

– Unlearn harmful patterns through awareness and education that only comes from compassionate introspection and intentional efforts to understand

– Support change of policies and procedures locally, in the workforce and nationally that may be systematically supporting superiority and colonial structures that affect the mental health of Black communities through “otherness”

Considering the illusion of “race” as a construct that impacts our mental health:

(based on Rhonda V. Magee’s latest book: The Inner Work of Racial Justice”)

Race defined by skin color is a social construct not biological and unpacking the reality of how this operates to create isolation requires support, tools, and an acknowledgement that it can impact the mental health of Black children (and families, parents, and caregivers). Trauma can result from the experience of feeling “othered” by one’s race in any given situation and experience. Factors such as cultural conditioning, societal conditioning, family experiences, and one’s own beliefs can also impact mental health. All of the above affect the perceptions of individuals overall but given Black communities have specific ones tied to their racial identity, it’s important to consider those differences when referring to mental health. Intersecting identities combined with lived experience as “Black” can create additional mental health challenges, such as experiencing ableism when disabled or experiencing homophobia when 2SLGBTQ+.

Mental health is a part of your overall health, add it to your “toolbox” to thriving in life:

Approaching mental health tools as a support in everyday life without stigmas such as it’s only to be accessed when “needed” can present incredible benefits to Black parents/caregivers and their children.  You access the tools you’ve developed to help respond to situations instead of reacting emotionally to experiences that include microaggressions, discrimation, and broader racial injustice. Such tools can include mindfulness self-compassion and meditation practices, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Pro-tip: You can search for therapists with specific expertise in through the Psychology Today website.

Other useful tools include the following books that focus on parenting, mindfulness, resilience.

In conclusion, to support thriving Black communities, including our children and youth, approaching our mental health and the mental health of others with compassion allows for understanding and empathy.  Believing that everyone is doing the best they can, at all times, even ourselves, can be instrumental in leading with courage when fear of differences may be present. As you can imagine, this is a huge asset when dealing with difficult experiences related to racial injustice and how it impacts us, our children and for allies, our communities overall.  It is common to associate shame, (there’s something wrong with me/my child,) with mental health given all the stigmas and judgements. Through embracing the importance of mental health, we can support healthy, wholehearted children and experience our own lives in a way that allows us to be authentic and filled with inner peace.

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