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Published on May 3rd, 2016 | from CAMH

A different kind of stigma: Racism, systems and belonging

By Gursharan Virdee, Research Analyst, Schizophrenia Division, Complex Mental Illness Program at CAMH

I have wanted to write about racism and mental health for a few months but kept putting it off. As I reflected on the reasons for my procrastination – mostly spurred by the beginning of Black History Month in February – I realized my fear was about what others would think about this topic and how it might impact their perception of me. The prevailing thought that came from my reflection was a call to write, and put a voice to the experiences of the many racialized individuals, families and communities we serve.

I experienced racism in my formative years, between the ages of 10 and 16 while living in the UK. I was mocked, ridiculed and humiliated because of my skin colour, mother tongue and traditions. I was told to go back to my country – slightly confusing at the time because I was born in England, not India, so England was my home. What began as verbal abuse turned physical. On one occasion I defended myself, which resulted in my being suspended from school. Yes, correct: punished for being a victim of racism. I recall the emotional distress and confusion that occurred as a result. I never really knew where I fit in amongst my peers, and many questions were raised. Do I belong in this space? Am I good enough to be here? Why me?

These experiences can be highly distressing and have a number of consequences on our health and social well being. Being ‘othered’ in multiple ways by individuals, communities and systems creates spaces that cultivate exclusion, creating stress, distress, and poor health. It’s a vicious cycle that we need to stop.

I often look back at that time in my life and accept, in a non-passive way, that I was victim of racism – an experience compounded by a system that perpetuated this mechanism. I know that my story is not unique. I have worked with many people who have had similar experiences at different points in their life. This experience is important to me and has shaped the lens I take in my work – working to give voice to members of racialized communities who have had similar experiences in a number of systems. And I urge every one of us to think about how we can create more inclusive spaces for marginalized people, and look at inclusive approaches to mental health care and equitable access to treatment.

It’s not surprising then that, when you pull back and frame it in a mental health context, racism strikes the same chord as the stigma that people with lived experience deal with. It’s a pattern of exclusion and misrepresentation based on fear and ignorance, with damaging and lasting effects.

A question I often get asked is ‘what should we be doing to help move things along?’ 90% of the time my answer is to care. This usually raises a few eyebrows and people snicker. I have come to understand that people expect an academic and strategic response. But in actual fact, I think creating sustainable change goes deeper than that.

Creating meaningful change that values equality and respects others means creating change at all levels of society – from individuals and communities, through to multiple overarching systems that shape our daily life government policy, healthcare, resettlement.

We need to care because we are connected. Our words, our actions and values impact one another, not just through communication, but the way we think and how those thoughts then shape this world. This may sound esoteric to some, but it is how we operate.

As I reflect on my life experiences, caring about other human beings and taking the time to understand the world through their lens, have been the foundation of my own healing. There is no uplifting end to this blog. It’s one small piece of the many conversations that have come before and will come after. Instead, I end with a simple call to action. We need to care more. And with that as a building block for further discussion, we can only hope that change will follow.

You can follow some of Gursharan’s work in bringing mental health awareness to the South Asian Community through the Collaborative for South Asian Mental Health and follow her on Twitter at @GursharanVirdee

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