Mental health: ethnic minority experiences

Losses & gains: impact of mental health problems on everyday lives

Having a mental health problem can impact on different aspects of life and many of these are interconnected: being unable to work may mean living on a low income and missing out on friendships and social activities. Here, people talk about how their mental health problems affected their lives.

Many people described how having a mental health problem had affected their education. Some found being at school or university difficult, sometimes because they found it difficult to make friends (see below) or because they found it difficult to study and concentrate (see Tariq's story). As a result, several people described truanting (skipping school), having to leave school or give up their studies and having no qualifications (see Dolly's below). One man had to give up an adult education course.

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One woman also described being unable to face going to university age 18: “when it came down to it, I just couldn't go”. Despite this initial loss of potential, several people did well in their exams and went on to go to university and get degrees or do other courses in the community.

Having a mental health problem also affected people's ability to work; some had never worked, whilst others had lost or had to change jobs. 

People also described finding it hard applying for jobs and going for interviews. Some people felt they were too unwell to be able to work, although many said they would like to, including one woman who felt that other people did not expect her to be able to.

Many people were able to work, some in paid work and others in voluntary positions, and had periods of not working or sick leave when they were unwell. Voluntary and part-time work seemed to be helpful for building confidence and helping people adjust to the workplace, although some were unable to do either. Some of those who were working said that aspects of their job could sometimes be difficult, particularly speaking in public, increases in workload and relationships with colleagues or simply because the work environment can be stressful. Some people felt that they had been unable to fulfil their potential at work.

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A few people mentioned having to balance the demands of work, home or social life and having a mental health problem. Feeling tired as a result of anxiety or medication was a particular issue for some. A few people had made special arrangements at work to accommodate their needs or found the flexibility of their workplace helped. (Under the Equality Act, employers are required to make “reasonable adjustments” to enable people with disabilities to work - see our practical matters resources for links to further information).

Despite the problems they mentioned, many people described conquering the difficulties they experienced at work. Some were involved in mental health campaigning or other user involvement activities, including acting as trustees, doing research, and speaking at events: "I sit on the board representing the service user. So I help people who are suffering, who can't speak up for themselves”. One man went on to set up an arts project and another woman wrote a book about her life [see Dolly above].

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Housing and finances
Having a mental health problem and sometimes being unable to work meant many people lived on benefits and experienced financial problems. One woman built up debt from going on shopping sprees driven by her mental health problems. People thought it was important to know your entitlements and some struggled to get their benefits. 

People thought that having secure, appropriate housing was crucial for good mental health. 

Some described how having a mental health problem led to them lose or put them at risk of losing their home, including one woman whose accommodation threatened to throw her out because complaints were made about her behaviour, and a man whose house was at risk because he couldn't pay the mortgage [see Anton above]. A few people described having periods of homelessness. 

Having mental health problems also affected people's ability to make and sustain friendships and other relationships (see Dolly's story). 

Many people described tension and arguments in their relationships with partners or spouses, sometimes because their partner didn't understand their mental health problems. Some relationships broke down as a result. A few people described being unable to form relationships with members of the opposite sex.

Similarly, people described tension and problematic relationships with other members of their family (see 'The role of family, friends & carers'). One man found family events, visits and weddings very difficult.

Some people lost their ability to care for their children, and a few had even lost custody of their children. Several people mentioned the burden on their families and a few women felt their mental health problems had put pressure on their kids and even affected their schooling. A few mentioned being short-tempered with and even beating their children.

Everyday activities
People's ability to undertake or participate in everyday activities was also affected. Some people were unable to do housework, cook, read, listen to music, watch television or do sports, including one man who said, “I used to be quite, a very enthusiastic young boy when I was young. I used to play a lot of sport, I used to run around, but now all I do is lay on my bed and just drink”. Some found it difficult being in public and consequently, could not go out, go shopping, use public transport, or eat in public. Some people avoided certain social situations, such as the pub. 

Outlook on life
Some people described living with a mental health condition as “miserable”, “hell” and “horrible”. Many said that having a mental health problem “takes over your whole life”. They felt that their mental health problems affected their confidence, identity and independence and took up a lot of their time and energy: “I haven't really done very much with my life”.

As a result of not being able to work or go out and their problems with relationships, many felt isolated and as though their potential to live a full life was limited: “I am always trapped at home”. 

On the other hand, many people reflected on what they had gained from having a mental health problem. Some felt they were a “better person” because they had learned something and felt they had gained various personal qualities including sensitivity, self-expression, knowing themselves better, people skills, not taking things for granted, dignity and strength. Some referred to mental health problems as a “gift” or in the words of one man, an “enabling disability” (see Edward's story). One woman said, “I have absolutely no desire to be anybody else” although another commented, “I am a survivor, but having said that I still prefer to go without these awful experiences”.

Despite the consequences described above, not everyone felt that having a mental health problem was a barrier to success and many talked about helping and inspiring other people, or just getting on with their lives.

Last reviewed September 2018.

Last updated November 2010.


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