‘What is wrong with me?’
That’s the question I would ask myself when I woke up every morning before school.
Aged 13, I’d feel the sudden urge to crawl back into bed and hide from the world.
But nothing had happened to me. Nothing was ‘wrong’.
So why, in the back of my mind, did I want to die?
For as long as I can remember, I’d go through episodes of frustration, anger, and depression. A cycle that has always weighed heavy on my mind and health, but I was unable to articulate it.
I had great grades and was doing well. I went to my extracurriculars, and played both sports and the violin.
But whenever I’d open up to friends about how I was feeling, they’d say that therapy was ‘a white thing’ – and that depression wasn’t for Black people. That I’d get over how I was feeling with time. And sometimes, it felt like I did.
But then I wouldn’t sleep or eat well. I’d make the excuse of being a picky eater to cover up how my anxiety caused my stomach to twist in knots. I felt like people were judging me for merely being myself.
I retreated into myself, allowing anger to build up before it would inevitably explode – and then depression, that all-consuming depression that keeps you awake at night.
After I approached them for help, teachers and school counsellors told me that I was ‘too young’ to be depressed. That if everything was going well, nothing was really wrong with me.
I wanted to scream and shout, tell them they were wrong – but I was worried they would judge me.
I first went to my GP asking for help when I was 15, who referred me for counselling. Someone to speak to and relieve my anxiety. There was a sense of hope that I had, that finally I would get help and have someone understand what I was going through.
I stopped just two sessions in as my counsellor asked if I’d ‘tried not being depressed’, which has stuck with me as one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard.
I laugh about it now, but at that moment, I realised that our mental health services weren’t exactly great.
So I gave up, buried myself in books – which had always been a balm to get me out of my own head. My mum always advised me to write things down, buying me pretty notebooks that helped clear my fuzzy head.
I merely continued to ‘cope’, all while acting as if nothing was wrong, which started the cycle of anxiety and periods of depression.
On days I was quiet, and people noticed, I told them brightly that I was merely thinking, when I was actually spiralling. I would feign smiles and say that I was fine. I would lie in bed awake, feeling awful – like I was a fraud but had no one to turn to. I’d feel like a burden to my own mum, nervous to add to the load of a busy woman.
I remember having a panic attack, aged 16, running out of a classroom that was feeling too small. I called my mum, who was minutes from giving a presentation at work in another country. She calmed me down – she was always able to do so.
She was the only person who listened, and knew the reality of how a Black woman can be perceived – even as a child, when we expressed needing help.
Expressing yourself loudly, or being assertive as a Black woman can be perceived as a threat. I was always afraid of being seen as an angry Black woman if I forced a conversation about my mental health with school counsellors – so I avoided being assertive.
During my teens, I was chair of Birmingham Children’s Hospital Young Person Advocacy Group (YPAG), applying for the position after two years of volunteering with the group. I wanted to improve patient care for other young people.
I would sit down in meetings with staff, discuss the experiences of patients and go on walkabout, which are tours of wards with young people and their families.
Something we discussed with other young people of colour and practitioners was the lack of cultural competency surrounding Black and Asian young women, and whether we were screaming, or near the point of no return before being able to get help.
Cultural competency is the ability to interact and tailor care to people of different cultural backgrounds. This is particularly important for the mental health sector, given mental health symptoms can be heavily influenced by our cultural backgrounds.
Given that most research into mental health symptoms has been conducted using white people, many practitioners can miss symptoms of mental illness in people of colour. During my time in YPAG, I helped create a training program, led by young people to help highlight these disparities in care.
Being around friends and other people who understood what it was like to be high performing and mask the pain of mental health issues, I no longer felt alone.
I remember a psychologist – one of the first Black psychologists I ever met, back in 2019 – asking me an important question: ‘Why are you so willing to fight for everyone’s health but not your own?’
And she was right.
I was able to give advice and advocate on behalf of patients and families, yet I didn’t apply any of that advice in my own life.
I’d even helped create a training program for health professionals on how to speak to young people about their conditions and how to explain to them their options for treatment, so why couldn’t I do this for my own health?
I found that it made me rethink my approach when dealing with my own health professionals – learning to be more assertive without fear of being perceived as angry or hysterical.
In 2020, I sat down with a doctor to explain in full my feelings of depression, and she was surprised I hadn’t received help earlier. I wrote down a list of my history and feelings collected from journals and odd notes on my phone.
I needed help. I wanted help.
It felt like such a relief to be finally heard and helped. As if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
I was soon able to get a Black psychotherapist, too, who understood the cultural anxieties and self-criticism that fuelled my mental health issues.
She helped me comprehend the internal logistics of how my mind works as well as the external pressures, such as racism and constant microaggressions, that impacted my health.
Advocating for yourself can be scary, especially as a woman of colour. But the main thing to remember is that your life is on the line. Your health.
Mental or physical, you have every right to demand better from those who are there to help you.
So much needs to change in the NHS in regard to the treatment of Black and Asian people, but starting with being forward with your practitioner will help. When you do, you make them truly understand that there are various ways in which mental health presents itself in different people.
I can safely say that it saved my life.
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