As a black woman living with HIV, I’m more vulnerable to experiencing poor mental health. Through my work, I’m constantly confronted with the stats and reminded that the reason we avoid/present late to mental health services cannot be reduced to the “mental health stigma within black communities” retort. The barriers are real, the gendered-racism is real.
In the BBC Radio 4 programme Black Girls Don’t Cry, journalist Marverine Cole explores why black women in the UK experience higher incidents of anxiety, depression and self-harming. In the UK, compared to our white counterparts, black people are more likely to be diagnosed with a severe mental illness, receive medication (rather than talking therapy options) and sectioned under the mental health act (source: Mental Health Foundation). Black women are also more vulnerable to acquiring HIV, and people living with HIV are more vulnerable to having poor mental health. Invisible No Longer (the first UK nationwide project that centres the experience of women living with HIV) found that 42% had received a mental health diagnosis since their HIV diagnosis.
As black women living with HIV, we are often crunched into stats and reduced to sad soundbites. I'm a high achiever. At times of grief and lows, I've generally been able to compartmentalise and get on with the job at hand (that is not something unique to me). 2018 has been a year of extreme emotions. I recently married two dear friends of mine, performed and given talks internationally and been involved in planning two international conferences. During this time, I have also been ‘reunited’ with (and am now supporting) an estranged relative, experiencing a psychotic episode. At the time of writing this, almost four months after being admitted, they are still in a psychiatric unit. Somewhere in the middle of that, I also experienced a relationship breakdown. Earlier this year, I decided to let go of that strong black woman trope. I don’t want to only be strong, I want to be soft.