I’ve only ever had one panic attack.
I was 16. I was on my way to a college I quite dramatically hated. It took me to the outskirts of London. I could count on one hand and an extra finger the people that looked like me. Having made no friends in the few months I’d been there, I’d already started slipping in and out. I was barely there, and late when I was. Life had become more complicated and strained than I was used to. And I always seemed to think everyone was laughing at me. The train had stopped between stations, five minutes away from the college town.
Nothing was out of the ordinary. The level of dread was relatively the same as it always was. And then suddenly my heart felt like it was trying to burst through my chest. I was late. I didn’t often care about disrupting my class. But I was sweating. My throat was tight and I could barely breathe.
I called my mum. I told her that something bad was happening to me and I didn’t know what it was but I needed to come home. She told me to press forward, that my absences had already been flagged, letters had been sent home and worrisome calls had been made by my academic supervisor, Tom. The college was a good one. You’ll be fine once you get into class, she cooed, sensing the tears in my voice, but you have to go in today love.
The undercurrents of anxiety in being friendless and shy in a new environment was likely the cause of such an ‘out of the blue’ bout of panic. So was being Black and suddenly planted into a white space, surrounded by people that couldn’t and wouldn’t understand. It was a contributory factor in the panic attack I suffered that morning, but the implications of being Black are enough to trigger a relationship with anxiety.
2020 was a year for Black people. The idea that we’re far more likely to lose our lives as a result of our race was made into even more of an inarguable fact. New stories of the austerity that disproportionately ravages Black British communities and its impact on our mortality rate embedded themselves in our news media. We’re four times more likely to die from Coronavirus than our white counterparts, the national office of statistics found in spring, observing that socioeconomic inequalities play a sizable role. Though it’s said more research is needed to cement the link, a study that found Black Britons are around five times more likely to be murdered suggested the same. Unite all of this with 2020’s Black Lives Matter movements which triggered a resurfacing of buried racial trauma. You now potentially have inspiration for both the development and enhancement of Black anxiety.
There’s little known about how many of us are weighed down by anxiety, whether preordained by the negative implications of our race, or enhanced by them. It’s a component of mental health under narrated by the Black people who know it well. Much of what’s been uncovered about Black mental health in recent years has considered depression and psychosis as focal points in studies. The black hole of anxiety – as equally justified by our racial experiences as the former, is largely uncharted territory. When better to fill in these gaps in understanding then now?
It’s difficult to choose an entry point into such a broad conversation. However, beginning with an understanding of racism’s ability to inspire anxiety within black communities isn’t a bad place to start.
“Individuals respond to situations differently.” Julie Baah, an NHS psychologist and mental health practitioner states. “Some people manage life with some level of normality, whilst others understandably find their mental wellbeing impacted severely after a traumatic event.”
“These experiences can affect levels of stress, anxiety and fearfulness, as well as self-esteem.”
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as ‘an emotion characterised by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.’
For those of us that find ourselves more prone to the crippling mental impact of racism, anxiety can reveal itself in different ways. It can account for a range of behaviours, from the feeling of ‘worry’ that we traditionally associate with it, to stringent ‘self-monitoring’ – a psychology term that describes a management of how a person expresses and presents themselves to others. For some Black people, racially charged anxiety could look like the adoption of a certain set of behaviours. There could also be a dissociation from behaviours stereotypically associated with Blackness, in hopes of avoiding further instances of racism. But the severity of the way the anxiety feels too can vary, Bahh confirms.
“It may be a feeling of being more on edge for some people. For others, it may be a higher sense of fearfulness or distress.” She says. “A common explanation of anxiety is our bodies and minds responding to something that appears dangerous. If we use this explanatory model, it is understandable why some people may feel avoidant, on edge, or mentally preoccupied with worry when they are experiencing ongoing racism.”
“It is important that each feeling is validated, whether it is seen as less or more severe.”
This severity can also be impacted by the number of instances of racism a Black person endures.
“Multiple exposures to traumatic incidents, including racism, can be detrimental to a person’s mental wellbeing. For some, the psychological impact of experiencing multiple traumatic incidents may be more multi-layered and long-term.”
The Age of Black British Anxiety
The endurance of racism is long term. It’s widely considered par for the course, well-lodged into the Black experience, occurring with and without an audience. The events of 2020 happened against the backdrop of immobilisation, in a world filled with people with nowhere else to look. The zeroing in on the true extent of racism’s ramifications may have initiated a new anxiety in some of us, but for many Black people, the same old song continued to loop, Baah suspects.
“I think the sudden increased acknowledgement of police brutality and murder and the racial inequalities of COVID-19 have just highlighted on a broader scale what many Black people already know and experience.” She says. “A lot of inequalities have stayed consistently poor and fatal even though there have been campaigns and initiatives prior to the COVID pandemic and BLM.”
Black Lives Matter, founded in 2013 in response to the epidemic of police brutality against African Americans, has since garnered an international following, in part to address racism’s bounds across geographical confines. Britain’s deep rooted relationship with racism, beginning with its colonial past has created a racism that holds a tone of its own. The gaslighting that claims of racism are often met with can inspire a certain strain of anxiety. A denial of their experiences can cause a Black person to doubt their own sanity and sureness of self. The racism at an institutional level does more to sustain the erasure.
“There is something about the experience of being Black and British and seeing current and past histories erased or re-told e.g. in school education, TV, and public discourses.” Says Baah.
“Understandably, the level of gaslighting, erasure and denial of experiences can leave some Black people feeling increased anxiety, feelings of distrust or powerlessness.”
Anxiety Is Like a Mosquito
“We cannot ignore the exacerbated anxieties experienced by Black people during what was already a challenging time.”
Mimi Koku, a Nigerian-British filmmaker, musician, writer and visual artist affirms.
“The #EndSARS movement created an additional layer of anxiety as I feared for my loved ones back home and feared for the state of Nigeria. With news that Black people are more likely to die from COVID-19, combined with what some called a ‘resurgence in the BLM movement’ – a gaslighting experience because Black people have consistently spoken up about these injustices for years,” she continues, “what I myself as well as friends and family experienced, was an overwhelming sense of trauma and demoralisation.”
That year saw the official release of Koku’s first fictional short film – Mosquito, a multilayered exploration of anxiety.
It follows Sage, a schoolgirl whose anxiety is triggered by a period in her life awash with academic pressures and uncertainties about the future. The anxiety spirals into depression, as she sinks further and further into her own mind, disconnecting from loved ones.
“I certainly pulled from personal experiences while writing the film, as well as the experiences of my friends.” Says Koku. “I not only looked back at this phase of our adolescence and recalled moments of emotional upheaval, dejection and general panic, I could find situations in the present that stirred these feelings as well.”
Mosquito draws on the kind of ‘situational anxiety’ that we can all relate to. Being Black, it would not be unreasonable to feel more prone to situations that inspire worry, life for us can often feel uncertain. For some of us though, racism inspires an anxiety that may add onto a predisposition to feel more anxious about life than others.
“Black people are not a monolith.” States Baah. “Although there may be common shared experiences, time needs to be taken to fully understand a person’s unique experience.”
For Koku, these unique experiences are coloured by intersectionality. Mosquito features a cast that demonstrates a range of converging identities. With these and her own in mind, she classifies intersectionality as equally important in understanding our needs.
“There is an odd position Black women have been placed in, where the nuances of our lived experiences are undermined because there is a general perception that we are able to take so much suffering and pain.” She says. “I believe that Black women – Black people – are incredibly resilient indeed. However, this doesn’t mean we’re never in need of support.”
“Any such belief is incredibly dehumanising.”
Difficulty in understanding Black mental health is in part a symptom of the mental health stigma that has historically nestled within our communities. It encourages feelings of shame that lead to a suppression of feelings, and an aversion to seeking external support. When help is sought, this stigma is seemingly reenacted at an institutional level.
“Stigma is perpetuated by how Black people are treated within mental health systems.” Says Baah. “Black people are less likely to be referred for support and less likely to be referred for more therapeutic forms of support over medication. There are also reports of Black people feeling less satisfied with their care in comparison to white people.”
“All of these factors can make it more challenging for Black people who are dealing with anxiety to receive the support and care they need.”
The government has recently reformed the 1983 Mental health act in attempts to deal with the disproportionate rate that Black people are sectioned, four times more than our white counterparts. A more human approach, a rejection of the ‘one size fits all’ narrative, and the continued dismantling of stigma within our communities is essential. We can’t address the gaps in our understanding of Black mental health without them. There are calls for the reins to be handed over to those with the insight.
“A lot more research, and work needs to be done by and with Black people to support our understanding.” States Baah. “I hope that broadening the way we understand anxiety within the Black community will help Black people who feel that more simplified and common ways of understanding anxiety do not fit with their experiences.”
I think of my own experiences with anxiety, predominantly during a time in my life where I lacked not only the understanding, but the confidence to address my anxiety head on. I wondered what the impact would’ve been if the support so widely accessible today had found me back then. What if I had been validated by the present day discussions that showcase an array of identities and personal experiences within Black mental health. It would’ve forced me to believe that what I thought and felt wasn’t abnormal.
“I believe the more we talk about these things, the more we will all realise that many of us struggle with many different things daily.” Koku affirms. “Attitudes are changing. If we come together to speak about these struggles and provide support systems, then we can heal, not just individually but as a community.”