Why Mental Health Discussions Need to Include BAME Men
Mental health is an intersectional issue. One writer explores how being a BAME man impacts his mental wellbeing
Edinburgh is grey all the time. It is grey Georgian buildings standing proud in New Town, grey kirks tucked away in Old Town, and grey-haired men smoking cigarettes outside busy pubs. In summer’s glory, the greyness is bright, but winter is here and Edinburgh is dreich. Anxiety has a similar meteorological effect when it hits me. Like winter, it rolls in replacing crisp autumnal brightness with a muted bleakness.
The issue with anxiety is that the sufferer is the sole proprietor of it. Being isolated with these feelings is difficult. Even harder to describe them to others. Often, it feels like it won’t make sense when explained aloud. Will anyone even understand it? Will they just dismiss it altogether? With all these swirling questions it seems easier to just keep silent.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I became aware of my anxiety. As a child, I recall growing overwhelmed during big life changes. But my life was always changing due to my father’s transient career. My siblings often saw me as moody or aloof. The reality was I didn’t know how to articulate the worries, sadness, and frustration that came from our constant moving. I didn’t understand how to deal with the liminality of my life. I was never able to root myself in one place and felt impermanent.
None of these issues were helped by the fact that I come from a culture in which men don’t discuss mental health or emotions. As a Mexican-American, machismo has a huge influence on how men behave. It dictates how men speak, how men think, walk and even how they express feelings (or rather don’t). Machismo is dangerous. It perceives feelings as soft and softness is quashed early in life to quell femininity. Machismo is widespread among many families in the Latino community. I don’t blame my parents for the fact I kept silent on my mental health issues. For my parents, the right words did not exist to help them begin conversations around mental health.
My sadness was born from the emptiness that came from not fully expressing my thoughts and worries. Outwardly, I was only ever a shell of the fully realised person that lived within. I had desires and dreams and questions that never made it out of my head.
Being gay only exacerbated my anxieties and feelings of isolation. I learned to silence my longings as a means of protection from shame and self-hatred. I would not allow myself to live outwardly and proudly. Because of that, I missed out on a lot of life. I didn’t kiss another person until I was almost 20 (never mind anything below the belt).
Suffering from mental health issues is difficult no matter your ethnic background, gender or sexual orientation. But, the hard reality is that among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, these issues are further compounded by lack of access to support and an elementary misunderstanding by specialists of how intersectionality might affect someone’s mental health. As the Mental Health Foundation states, people from BAME backgrounds are more likely to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital, experience poor treatment outcomes and more likely to disengage from mainstream services which ultimately will worsen conditions. What do you expect when whole communities feel invisible to services, peers and wider society?
Learning to manage my anxiety and depression has been like learning to ride a bike alone in the dark. That is to say it’s been a journey largely unseen by others. As I started to live proudly as a gay man, I began to bury my mental health issues. I lied to myself and said that nothing was wrong, even as friends asked: "What happened to the happy guy we knew?" By my fourth year of university, my light was dimming and greyness was rolling in once more. I didn’t know where that happy version of myself went. I remember one night being alone in my flat and just crying on my bed. I was in mourning from a failed relationship, the death of a dear friend and the end of my undergraduate experience. I was once again stuck between two epochs and unsure how I was going to manage the transition. There is no rulebook on how to move on from failure, how to mourn young or how to navigate the future. Among all the chaos, I had lost the spirit and passion I once had and that needed to change. The solution – therapy – was a scary prospect. It was a concept that existed outside my family and cultural reference points.
In therapy, I learned to confront a lot of things. I began to understand that I kept parts of my life separate as a way to protect myself. I hid my gayness from much of my family as a means to avoid my own insecurities. I believed my loud Mexican and Catholic family would not accept who I was. It was easier to exist in my utopia: a liberal academic town. But, as university came to an end, I realised I might not always live in this safe space. I had to learn to exist with all my truths: that I am brown, I am gay, I am someone who has mental health issues.
Prior to moving to Scotland, my husband warned me of its stoic culture. Stoicism promotes a quiet acceptance of what life may throw one’s way. Loud emotions or pronounced feelings are looked down upon. This can be troubling for those experiencing mental health issues. As I continue to grow roots in Edinburgh, I am learning to navigate these new cultural rules. It’s often a shock to my Scottish friends and family to hear me speak openly about therapy, anxiety or sadness. But I force myself to speak so that I don’t regress into being that quiet little boy again.
Being me can be an isolating experience in Scotland. There are not a lot of BAME people (and even fewer people from a Latino background). Not everyone understands what it is to negotiate different cultures as an outsider. Not everyone realises what it’s like to not always feel represented or seen. But by talking openly about these issues, I can play my role in new narratives taking root. As candid conversations start to take place, then more people will grow confident in talking about these important issues. Hopefully, as men, we can eradicate the need for machismo and instead promote open dialogue around mental health and emotion.