Mental health: ethnic minority experiences

Discrimination - mental health

Research suggests that people who are seen to be 'different' or 'threatening' are more likely to experience discrimination and be treated negatively. This is true for people from Black and minority ethnic communities and those with mental health problems. Many people experienced discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity as well as direct and indirect racism in their lives generally but also in their dealings with the mental health system.

Some felt these negative experiences had contributed to their mental health problems. Experiences of racial discrimination are therefore discussed elsewhere on this website (see 'Getting a diagnosis', 'Views about causes', 'Getting information', 'Outpatient & community services', 'Being in hospital', 'Being sectioned under the Mental Health Act', 'Prescribed medication & side effects', 'Talking therapies & ECT'). Here, people talk about experiencing discrimination because they have a mental health problem, although their ethnicity was sometimes relevant too and might have even added to the discrimination (see below).


The stigma of having mental health problems
Many people talked about the stigma or taboo associated with mental health problems which they felt existed regardless of ethnicity. People felt that they were seen by others as dangerous or threatening and several said that people with mental health problems were feared, especially those with schizophrenia: “you're demonised in society”. 

Some felt that others suspected that they were pretending to be unwell and didn't want to work, or might be incapable of work. Others said they weren't taken seriously or were even made fun of. A few people mentioned that people expected them to be different in some way from people without mental health problems. Some thought other people might make these assumptions and judgements because of their lack of understanding or awareness about mental health issues: “we're not mentally unbalanced all the time”. A few people thought discrimination was widespread and encouraged by the media.

Some people thought that mental health issues were more taboo in certain cultures and countries and some felt that discrimination against people with mental health problems was a particular issue within their own communities and their home countries. This sometimes affected the amount of support people got as well as their use of mental health services. 

Comparing responses to mental and physical health problems
People often compared mental illness with physical illness. They said that whereas having a mental health problem was seen as “the worst thing that can happen”, physical health problems were not considered as important. Some felt that people responded differently to physical illness, for example, being more sympathetic or making more effort to be accommodating at work: “if I had one leg, they'd be tripping over themselves to bleeding find a special chair but when it's mental health, no one wants to know”. This was thought to be partly because mental health problems are not immediately visible.

Experiences of direct discrimination
In some cases, people had experienced discrimination as a result of their mental health problem in all areas of their lives. A few people felt that people with mental health problems receive worse physical health care because they are not believed. A few said they had been treated badly by the police. 

Some said they had no friends or had lost friends when they were diagnosed, including one man who said his friends “disappeared like leaves off an autumn tree after I was diagnosed as being ill.”

Some were also concerned about what consequences having a mental health problem might have for their prospects for future relationships.

Others felt they had been “abandoned” by their family when they became unwell: “there's this big issue of Black people they really do not help the mentally ill themselves because you don't want a mental, a nutcase in your family”.

Some had experienced abuse from people in the street (see Sara's story) or neighbours: “this woman learnt about my mental health and she was telling everybody that I was a total mental nutcase and being totally abusive”. One woman was asked to leave her church because she was perceived to pose a threat to the children there.

Several people said that they had experienced some form of discrimination at work. This included not being offered jobs, being considered unsuitable and not being promoted. 

Because of this, a few people were worried about telling people at work about their mental health problems, especially in case it affected their career prospects: “that'd be like shooting yourself in the foot”. Some people were especially worried about the damage it could do to their career if they were ever sectioned under the Mental Health Act. A few people had been open with their manager and made arrangements to improve their working conditions. (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).

Telling others
Some didn't want to tell people about their mental health problems: “it's better to hide these things”. A few people said their family kept their mental health problems secret. Others were open about having a mental health problem: “I'm not ashamed of being unwell”. One woman was open about her mental health condition but said that there was a stigma (a set of negative ideas) around schizophrenia and that “you don't want to put that on your business card”. Many said they only told a select few people who they could trust. Some began to tell close friends and family, but not extended family or their community because of what they might think and the problems it could cause.

Some people said they felt embarrassed or ashamed about having a mental health problem, and a few were worried people would think they were “crazy” or would ridicule them.

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People described how it upset them that others had negative ideas about them, just because of their mental health conditions. They said that there was more to them than just their mental health problem: “don't look at the mental health problem alone, I'm a person as well”. Several people felt it was important to challenge stereotypes associated with mental illness, but recognised that these issues had been around for a long time and could take years to change. Some were involved in campaigning and awareness-raising (see Hanif's story), including one woman who referred to herself as a “mad ambassador”.

Last reviewed June 2015.

Last updated February 2013.

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