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The stigma of mental illness is one of the most common barriers to getting help. But people of colour face a whole other layer of stigma that is just as important, and not discussed nearly enough: we are vastly underrepresented when it comes to talking about mental health and overall media portrayal of mental illnesses. Think of the last movie you saw depicting a character with a mental illness. Imagine a poster designed to educate people about depression in a doctor’s clinic. Do a Google image search for “anxiety” or “OCD”. The people shown are rarely visible minorities. Mental illness is overwhelmingly represented by a white person with their head in their hands (which brings up another set of frustrating imagery that I will discuss in a future blog post). This might seem like a small thing to notice, but it is far from insignificant.

POC & Mental Illness Project by Dior Vargas
POC & Mental Illness Project by Dior Vargas

The lack of representation of people of colour who have a mental illness is more than just a minor pet peeve. It sends a message which says: “You are invisible. You don’t have these problems. You shouldn’t have these problems. Mental illness is a white person’s problem.” How is that supposed to make us feel? After years of building up an image in our heads of what a person with a mental illness is supposed to look like, it can be even harder to recognize when we need help because we don’t fit that image. Racial stereotypes play a role here too. Being part East Asian, I’ve grown up with my fair share of jokes about being the “perfect student” and always doing well in school. I remember feeling so ashamed when my grades slipped as a result of my depression. I felt bad enough just for myself, but I also felt like a failure of my own race. Coming from a family of immigrants, I’ve also seen the pressure that many Asian immigrants face to be the “model minority” – keep your head down, work hard and don’t complain. It isn’t exclusive to one single racial group either. This powerful piece explores the struggle to heal from trauma as a black boy who is always expected to be tough and hyper-masculine. Racial stereotypes are more than just offensive; they are dangerous to our health.

Even assuming that people of colour can overcome this aspect of stigma and recognize that they have a legitimate mental illness for which they need help, the fight still isn’t over. Finding a culturally sensitive healthcare provider can be tricky. Not everyone sees the world through the same lens, and people of colour have unique experiences based on their skin tone. Even the most empathetic doctor or therapist cannot fully understand the lived experiences of visible minorities. Discrimination, whether an everyday microaggression or a traumatic hate crime, leaves a mark on people and increases the risk of poor mental health.

How can we improve the situation for people of colour with a mental illness? Start by tackling the root of the problematic imagery. Don’t reinforce stereotypes that paint people of colour as being too tough to suffer from mental illnesses. If you work in public health, make sure promotional materials are accurately representative of the kinds of people who can have mental health problems – that is, everyone. Finally, spread the word. Talk to friends and family about how people with mental illnesses are portrayed. Think critically about the images you are seeing and check out the work of people trying to make a difference. The People of Colour & Mental Illness Photo Project by Dior Vargas is a great example of a way to challenge how we think about mental illness.

About Jasmin Yee

Jasmin Yee is an Ottawa-based young professional who has dealt with mental illness since the end of high school. Now 24, she has a passion for mental health advocacy and breaking down the barriers that make it so hard to talk publicly about mental illness. She writes about her experiences with depression and anxiety on her blog, as well as her thoughts on how to reduce stigma. Jasmin aims to develop a career in health promotion so that she can connect with at-risk communities and enable them to take care of their mental health.

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