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Dr Amanda Brown-Bennett is Chair of Diversity and Inclusion at Mental Health Innovations and a Clinical Supervisor for the charity’s Shout text message support service.

To mark Black History Month and explore its 2021 focus on ‘mental health in an unequal world’, we spoke to Amanda about how the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing mental health inequalities experienced by Black communities in the UK.

Amanda also comments on the importance of today’s launch of Bayo - a new online directory providing information about, and access to, a variety of initiatives, communities and mental health services created by and for the Black community - and explains how Shout is supporting the initiative. Bayo has been launched by charities Ubele, Mind, YoungMinds and Best Beginnings, funded by the National Emergencies Trust, in response to increased mental health needs across the UK in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which have been felt disproportionately by Black and brown communities.

What is your role at Mental Health Innovations?

I am Chair of Diversity and Inclusion for charity Mental Health Innovations, which powers Shout 85258 - the UK’s only 24/7 text message support service for anyone who is struggling to cope. In addition, I am a Clinical Supervisor and Platform Shift Lead on our digital Shout platform. As a Clinical Supervisor, my role is to work alongside trained volunteers while they support children, young people and adults who are texting Shout for immediate support with a range of mental health concerns. As Platform Shift Lead, I oversee the general running of the platform and help other Clinical Supervisors to effectively carry out their roles.

As we mark Black History Month and reflect on its theme of 'mental health in an unequal world', can you talk about some of the mental health inequalities that Black communities in the UK face?

Black communities have long suffered racism in the UK; marginalisation, ostracisation, prejudice and demoralisation are experiences faced by these communities purely based upon the colour of their skin.

History tells us of the abuses and humiliations of our forefathers, experiences passed down generationally, implicating economic, occupational, academic and social statuses, and contributing to deeply internal traumas that intertwine with psychological instability and presentations of anxiety, oppression, isolation and frustration, to name a few. Racism is, however, not just an issue of the past but a continual and genuine struggle faced by Black communities today.

What we are talking about here is prolonged exposure to severe trauma. Several studies consider the correlation between racial trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), results from exposure to trauma or feeling under threat of assault. It can also be a product of witnessing violence. Williams et al., (2018) analyse the traumatisation that people of colour may experience resulting from racialisation, such as police brutality, racial profiling, immigration struggles and workplace harassment.

Research suggests that Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder and that Black people were disproportionately detained under the Mental Health Act compared to white ethnic groups. Studies also suggest higher unemployment rates, poverty, multi-generational living and contact with the criminal justice system within Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

These direct or in-direct experiences can lead to distrust in government institutions and an unwillingness to access professional support. In addition, BAME communities may experience language barriers, financial barriers and cultural differences in understanding and addressing presenting issues; sometimes, people will turn towards families or within the community for support, where others turn inwards, resulting in social and emotional isolation.

Today sees the launch of Bayo, a new online hub providing information about, and access to, a variety of Black-led mental health services. Why do we need this initiative, particularly at this moment in time?

We welcome the launch of Bayo which, for the first time, brings together UK community groups, initiatives and services created for and by the Black community to support mental health and wellbeing in one place.

While there is a greater worldwide connection through shared experiences directly resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, there has also been greater exposure to universal stressors. Among these stressors, what has also been apparent is the disproportionately high negative implications upon Black communities.

From identifying Black communities as 'genetically vulnerable' to die from this disease to reports of low vaccination uptakes, these communities were not only singled out, but misrepresented. In addition, what was not initially factored into these statistics was the frontline working, multi-generational housing, overcrowding and anxieties of trusting in healthcare systems, which sometimes fails to reflect cultural considerations.

An undertone of racism was rearing its head within the pandemic, and then the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis (USA) took place. The pain of the Black community wasn't just about this isolated incident - not that the incident wasn't a hugely tragic and significant event in itself - however, it brought emotions and experiences that were bubbling away internally to the forefront, a trauma that was now to be witnessed and replayed throughout the world. One that gave us as a community the opportunity to highlight racism in a way that could not be ignored or snubbed as a culture 'playing the race card' or as having a chip on our shoulders.

One positive that came out of this tragedy was the realisation that Black people needed to unite and needed to be heard as a community. Unanimously deciding that we have had enough created a shift from looking outside of ourselves for change to empowering people to generate solutions to the crises which had long plagued and oppressed Black people.

Can you tell us more about how you are supporting the mental health of Black communities in the UK through Bayo?

We are proud to be able to support the Bayo initiative through our Let It Out campaign. Funded by Harry’s, Let It Out encourages young Black boys and men to access mental health support through Shout 85258.

Young men from Black communities in the UK have higher levels of diagnosed severe mental illness than other communities and are more likely to face multiple risk factors for poor mental health including the stresses of living in poverty, employment insecurity and experiences of racism. The pandemic has further widened these mental health inequalities.

We conducted research through agency The Outsiders to inform the campaign, which found that many young Black boys and men are struggling with their mental health but are often reluctant to open up about their worries because they feel a pressure to come across as strong and not overly emotional.

We worked with community interest company Create Not Hate to translate the insights into a behaviour change marketing campaign. The creative was developed in collaboration with diverse groups of young people through workshops where industry mentors helped turn the initial ideas into a fully fledged campaign.

Our aim was to create an authentic campaign that will encourage young Black boys and men to take their mental health seriously, to try to open up and share their emotions instead of masking them, and to use our text service to seek help if they need it.

We are extending the reach of the campaign through Bayo to provide ‘in the moment’ mental health support to Black children, young people, men and women across the UK. If you’re feeling anxious or low, or want to start a conversation about something that’s on your mind, text ‘LET IT OUT’ to 85258 for free, confidential support, 24/7. Our trained volunteers are here to listen with empathy and without judgement to whatever you'd like to share.

"The fact that there's someone out there willing to listen to me has probably saved my life tonight. Thank you."

Feedback from young Black female texter