Mental health: ethnic minority carers’ experiences

Negative attitudes to mental health problems

Unfortunately, many people have negative views of mental health problems. Negative attitudes and a lack of understanding can cause people with mental health problems to be treated badly or labelled in a way that hurts their standing in the community. This is sometimes called 'stigma', and can affect those with mental or emotional problems and their carers and families.

People's lack of understanding of mental health

A mental health problem is not something you can see' it can be 'difficult to get your head around' it. Some carers talked about wrong ideas commonly held about people with mental problems, for example that they are often violent.

People described the names others used to describe people with mental health problems, such as 'mad', 'crazy', 'cuckoo', or 'nuts'. They said people with mental health problems can be excluded from the community or made fun of. One woman said that jokes about mental health problems 'are just not funny' because of the way people are treated. 

Even the name of a diagnosis, such as schizophrenia, can sometimes be used as a negative word. One or two carers mentioned that some languages lack words for mental health, which might keep old stereotypes alive.

Some said their whole family was treated with suspicion or as 'untouchables'. This was shown in body language, by staying away, by staring, making fun of them or ignoring them on the street. Such behaviour hurts people and affects social and family life and in some cases even opportunities for getting married and starting a family.

TV and media were seen as almost always portraying mental health problems as something dangerous or scary, particularly, some said, when discussing mental health in minority ethnic communities. 

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People agreed that it is necessary to teach others that those with mental health problems, “are not 'mad' but have an illness”. Many get better or manage fine, and they should be treated just like people with other illnesses. 

Some people said that despite the need for improved understanding, the communities' understanding of mental health has improved over the years.

Views of mental health problems in different communities

Views differed on whether negative attitudes are more common in some communities than others. Some believed negative attitudes were more widespread in their own community' others thought it was much the same everywhere. Some people with an African-Caribbean background said that people with mental health problems face less stigma in the West Indies than in the UK. Many thought different cultures could learn from each other (see 'What different cultures can teach us').

Most of the carers recognised some negative views of mental health problems in their community here in the UK and said people in their family at times felt ashamed of mental illness. 

One African-Caribbean woman who grew up with mental health problems in her family suddenly, when she was 11, discovered that “people don't talk about this”, and people from other communities too said that talking about mental health problems, especially to someone outside the immediate family, was not 'the done thing'. Some described cultural 'taboos' that make it hard to talk about what being a carer is like.

One woman said that her community in East Africa blamed her for her son's illness because she had brought him to England where they thought he wouldn't learn to stay away from harmful behaviour.

Some carers believed that mental health problems can have spiritual causes. Others felt beliefs that explain mental illness by curses, or part of one's destiny or Karma, don't help and are misleading. One woman said that such beliefs 'do not serve us any more' because they focus on blame and not on helping people who are ill.

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Another woman was cross about the way people in her church claimed mental health problems are a result of sin or not praying enough. She had joined a group that try to make churches more aware.

Dealing with negative attitudes

Carers sometimes protected themselves and their families by keeping to themselves or not telling others about mental health problems. 

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To avoid gossip, many 'kept it under the carpet', or kept a 'stiff upper lip' when others talked about them. Some were careful who they talked to and some did not even tell their close family about the problems. Others said they 'pretend that things are different', such as saying someone is 'working from home' rather than being unable to work.

One woman said that her ex-husband had decided their son should not go to a psychiatric hospital because he was worried it could affect his future career. Another mentioned that her son did not want to socialise with other people with mental health problems to avoid being labelled.

Other carers said they 'did not bother' about who knew and that they would talk freely about it. One woman even said she sometimes chose to 'shock people' by telling them about mental illness in her family.

Last reviewed February 2013.

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