Overcoming mental health stigma in communities of colour

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

In 2014, mental health activist Dior Vargas was inspired to address the lack of Black Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) representation in the media’s coverage of mental illness. Through The People of Colour and Mental Illness Photo Project, Vargas invited BIPOC individuals to submit a portrait of themselves while holding up a sign sharing their mental health challenges.

The project features faces of various hues adorned with shy smiles and determined eyes, some with fists raised in defiance of the stigmas and shame that force them to suffer in silence. Each photo tells a different story of mental illness, from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and PTSD, with courage and vulnerability as unifying themes of the project.

Part of Vargas’s vision for her photo project was to challenge the belief held in many racialized families that, “mental illness is a ‘white person’s disease.’” Despite this belief, the Pan-Canadian Health Inequalities Reporting Initiative highlights that non-white Canadians typically experience higher exposure to life stressors, negatively impacting self-reports of mental health, life satisfaction, and levels of work stress. In comparison with Caucasian adults, eight fewer Arab and West Asian adults per 100 people report feeling satisfied or very satisfied with their lives.

Racialized communities were especially vulnerable to the social, economic, and physical effects of Covid-19, due to pre-existing health and socio-economic inequalities.

According to a joint study by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Wellesley Institute, individuals identifying as South Asian, Southeast Asian, or Black described increased levels of racism and stigmatization during the pandemic, which had “a considerable psychic and emotional burden for many people.” Despite the genuine need for mental health support, racialized communities face several barriers to accessing mental health care.

The Church plays an important role in supporting the mental health and well-being of its congregants. Just as racialized communities are not immune to mental health concerns, Christians are not spared from the burdens of poor mental health. The Church ought to be a space where suffering is witnessed with empathy and vulnerability is met with compassion. Pastors and lay leaders can educate themselves and their congregations on mental health issues.

Access to professional mental health services should also be prioritized. Several studies conducted in both the United States and Canada indicate lower rates of mental health service usage among ethnic minorities. Shame and stigma are cited as barriers to seeking help but there are also systemic barriers including a lack of cultural competence and systemic racism.

Registered psychotherapist (qualifying), Jill Ng, speaks to the perceptions of mental health in the Asian community that create unique barriers to accessing support. “It seems that one’s mental health is closely tied to one’s identity and even the family. Someone who is dealing with mental health issues is at times perceived as inherently defective or that there is something wrong in the family.”

In honour-shame based cultures, where the honour of the family or community is held as a primary value, mental health concerns are stigmatized and seen as something to be dealt with in secret or not at all.

For racialized Canadians in the Church, the stigmatization of mental illness can be two-fold. In some Christian communities, mental health concerns are narrowly viewed in spiritual terms and seen as issues that can only be addressed through Christian disciplines like prayer, fasting, and Scripture reading.

While these disciplines certainly play an important role in nurturing one’s mental and emotional health, Ng notes that a holistic perspective of well-being is necessary for pursuing the fullness of life God desires for His children. She explains, “a human person is holistically made up of their mind, body, soul, and just as one would seek help for physical health, it is essential also to seek support for mental health for holistic growth.”

Jill’s practice reflects her commitment to providing holistic care. She says that “always trying to see the image of God (imago Dei) in clients helps me immensely when I work with clients with issues I wrestle with or cultures I’m unfamiliar with.”

Especially when supporting racialized clients, many of whom experience the challenges of immigration and racial trauma, presence is a powerful source of healing.

“Feeling alone and unsafe has been a common theme with the clients I worked with,” she says. “I believe deep within, many people hope to be accepted and embraced just as they are. I think that is one of the key aspects to take note of when working with Asian Canadians—which is to focus on building up their sense of self and identity. As therapists for Asians Canadians, a presence of ‘being with’ and ‘walking alongside’ would build up their sense of self as they find in us a space where they can be their honest, authentic self and still be embraced and accepted.”

A compassionate and attentive presence is not only necessary for therapists. Ng sees the ministry of presence as a direct reflection of the heart of Jesus. She advises disciples of Jesus to focus on being with their brothers and sisters struggling with mental concerns, instead of offering solutions.

“It is rather common for well-intentioned people to help the congregants in need by trying to ‘fix’ or ‘advise’ but at times it leads to more hurt if they are not aware of the mental health aspects,” she cautions. “Some key steps would be to normalise mental health issues and increase the awareness of different mental health issues. This will help congregants listen to truly understand and empathise with issues that are often very complex.”

For many immigrants and minority ethnic groups, the Church has played a central role in navigating the challenges of their unique experiences. From Black churches seeking social reform on behalf of their congregants to mono-ethnic immigrant churches offering a sense of familiarity to newcomers, the Church has been powerfully used by God to address the social, spiritual, and physical needs of its members.

The same opportunity exists when it comes to mental health needs. Acknowledging mental health issues and advocating for professional support does not indicate a lack of trust in God; rather, a commitment to serving those God has committed into our care. Just as we would drive a physically ill church member to their doctor’s appointment and surround them in prayer, we can pray for those experiencing mental and emotional pain and support them in accessing the care they need.

God has used Ng’s ethnic identity to challenge mental health stigma within her community and to invite those other Asian Canadians to feel safe in accessing mental health support. In our conversation, Ng reflected on how her journey of becoming a therapist opened the door for new conversations about mental health and well-being within her own family.

Her story is another reminder of the intentional nature of God. He sees all of who we are—ethnicity, talents, wounds, and weaknesses—and leverages our unique designs to bring healing to His people and glory to His name.

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer. Her love of words began in childhood when she would hide under the covers with a flashlight and a juicy mystery novel. Those reading sessions expanded her imagination and ignited her curiosity. Andrea’s passion for the written word has drawn her to write about the intersections of faith, ethnicity, and gender. When she isn’t writing or counselling, you can find her eating plantain chips or belting out 90s R&B classics.

Read more columns from “Church of many cultures.”