Mental health: ethnic minority experiences

Ways of describing mental health problems

Here, people talk about their symptoms and how they described them to others, including friends, family and health professionals. Many people said that they found it difficult to make other people understand what they were going through or why they acted the way they did, including family, friends and health professionals. In some cases, people said it was particularly difficult to explain the symptoms associated with their condition, for example, people with general anxiety disorders and panic attacks. Another man, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, said that his hallucinations were “difficult to put into words”. Sometimes explaining symptoms was more difficult for people who spoke English as a second language, even if they spoke it fluently.

Describing symptoms to health professionals
Some people we talked to described different symptoms or only some of their symptoms to their doctor. This was sometimes because they were afraid of being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, including one man who told the doctor that “he was going through hell” but didn't reveal that he felt suicidal and who, on another occasion following a suicide attempt, told hospital doctors that he took the tablets by accident. Another woman didn't want to tell anyone she heard voices, so she said her “head was noisy” and that she found it difficult to ”filter out conversations”. One woman with an eating disorder said she didn't want anyone to find out about it in case she was forced to have treatment. Others described different symptoms because they found it so difficult to explain how they felt. One man who was experiencing constant anxiety was also experiencing headaches and stomach aches, had no appetite, had problems sleeping and was worried about school and his exams and he found these physical symptoms easier to describe to his doctor.

In some cases, people didn't really understand themselves what was happening or didn't realise how ill they were (see 'Onset of mental health problems'). As a result, doctors didn't always immediately recognise that they were experiencing mental health problems. One man, who did realise he was experiencing mental health problems, described his symptoms as being like the 'flu', and his doctor didn't realise at first that he was going through depression. Others were also diagnosed with other conditions or took a while to be diagnosed at all (see 'Getting a diagnosis').

One woman, in a state of desperation, exaggerated her symptoms in order to get help or access treatment: she told her doctor she would commit suicide if she didn't admit her to hospital.

Terms used to describe mental health problems
People from different ethnic backgrounds, cultures and whose first language was not English used standard English terms and labels to describe their mental health problems, including 'hearing voices' and feeling 'down' or depressed. Others used phrases such as, “my head is not well”, “my mind is playing tricks”, or referred to psychological distress or emotional problems. Many said they had experienced a breakdown or a nervous breakdown. One woman said that mental health problems were referred to as “the nerves” in the Caribbean.

It was also common for people to use terms such as “crazy”, “mad” and “bizarre” when referring to themselves and their and others' behaviour. One man, who worked on an anti-stigma project thought it was important to challenge people's use of terms such as “crazy”, “bonkers” and “loony”.

Making a distinction between feeling "normal" and feeling unwell
Many people distinguished their symptoms or the way they were feeling from being or feeling “normal”, saying things like there was “something wrong” with their head or with them. They compared themselves against other people, either favourably or unfavourably. Many described themselves as ill, mentally ill, sick or unwell, and their condition as mental illness or disease. They frequently referred to having a “breakdown”. One man pointed out that what is the “norm” for one person might be different for another. Others described what was happening to them as “natural”, including one woman who thought panic attacks were a “natural response” to anxiety and another woman who, when she first heard voices, thought it was something “natural” that everyone experienced [see Niabingi above] (see 'Onset of mental health problems'). 

Mental health problems and physical symptoms
Generally, people drew a distinction between physical and mental health and symptoms, using phrases like, “it's just my mind”, “psychological distress” and “mental breakdown”, others found it less easy to tell the difference. 

When describing their symptoms or how they felt, people often referred to what might be considered physical experiences. For example, they mentioned shivering, shaking, being hot, cold or feverish, itching, tingling, or feeling numb or weak, feeling pressure or pain and having a headache. A few people also referred to finding it difficult to speak.

Some of these physical symptoms could have had other explanations. Most of the people interviewed described issues relating to their physical health, including migraine headaches, tinnitus (ringing, whistling, buzzing and humming noises in the ears or head with no external source) and menopause, as well as alcohol and drug use (see Mae's story and Chapman's story). Also, some people thought their symptoms were caused by other symptoms (e.g. they couldn't sleep because they were hallucinating) or by side effects of medication (see 'Prescribed medication & side effects').

Other symptoms
Other unusual symptoms included feeling afraid - either in general, “I felt fear in me” - or afraid of specific things, for example, being afraid of men or afraid of silence. One person was afraid to look into people's eyes. Several people were afraid of death and felt as though they "could be gone any time”. A few people referred to feeling like a different person than they were before, or feeling like two different people (see Shareen's story). Others described having intense on-off relationships. Some described feeling angry, being violent, “smashing things” and threatening to beat their children.

Overall, people felt that their symptoms made them lose control over their thoughts, feelings, behaviour and even their life, describing their condition as “hell” or a “curse”. Most experienced cycles of illness followed by periods of feeling well and being able to function (sometimes with the help of medication). Although some had lived with their symptoms since childhood, many said they had changed or even improved over time.

Last reviewed June 2015.

Last updated February 2013.

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