A most disturbing history of black mental health

Drapetomania was the name given to the ‘mental illness’ that numerous enslaved Africans demonstrated by running away from the European slave-masters who were abusing them. As far as white doctors in the 1860’s were concerned, human beings were mentally ill if, when physically abused and tortured, they chose to escape.

If this concept is hard to understand then it is just one example of the vagaries of a mental health system designed from a white perspective but used to diagnose black people. Dyaesthopia Ethiopia was another diagnosis offered by Dr Samuel Cartwright and other doctors who sought to explain why enslaved people did not wish to work.

This ‘mental illness’ became worse if there were no white people around to look after Africans but it could be cured by violence, especially whipping . This medical analysis says a great deal about the European world view. The white perspective was that despite the  kidnap, forced labour, torture, rape, murder and mutilation that was the daily experience of an enslaved African;  the slaves were ‘happy’ and must be ‘mad’ to try to escape.

It was also common for white doctors to conduct medical experiments on black people with the understanding that   blacks ‘did not feel pain’. One of the most famous examples is J Marion Sims who in the 1840’s developed the vaginal speculum. This medical tool is in use all over the world today but it was created by repeatedly forcing various primitive prototypes into the vaginas of enslaved African women without anaesthetic.

There is a heroic statue of him in Boston to this day with no mention of his past. Frontal lobotomies, performed by inserting an icepick above the eye and swirling it about were commonly practiced by white doctors on ‘mentally ill’ black men up until the late 1960’s in America.

In the 1950’s the British government relied upon respected psychiatrist J.C Carother’s Theory of the African Mind to explain why Kenyans would fight for freedom from English people who had stolen their land, raped their daughters and placed them under colonial rule. His explanation was that Kenyans were “given to phantasy and fabrication, unstable, impulsive, unreliable, irresponsible, and living in the present without reflection or ambition”.  Black people were medically assessed by the state as violent savages who could only be subdued with great force.

England 1969, David Oluwale was diagnosed with mental health issues. He had been subject to violent beatings while detained at Menston Mental Hospital in Leeds. His name is particularly important as he was killed by white police officers who in May of that year, severely beat him, urinated on him, and then threw him in the Leeds River. They were convicted in 1969 and sentenced to just four years.

They remain the only officers ever to be convicted for the death of a black man in custody. In 1998 a black man named Christopher Alder, who had no mental health problems, died on camera in Hull police station with his trousers round his ankles while officers stood around laughing as he choked to death. The officers destroyed his clothing, their own clothing and wiped down the van he was transported in. No officer was convicted in this case.

This event occurred five years after the death, in mental health custody, of David ‘Rocky’ Bennet. In 1993 Mr Bennett, after reacting badly to racist abuse was restrained by up to five staff, some of whom sat on top of him for up to 25 minutes. His death led, after vigorous lobbying by the family, to the Rocky Bennett Inquiry

In 2004, Sir John Blofeld, chair of the Inquiry described British mental health services as “a festering abscess, which is at present a blot on the good name of the NHS” .That was five years ago – surely things have moved on since then? Sadly they have not.

Most of recommendations of the 2004 report were never implemented, because the then health secretary, John Reid, refused to countenance the concept of institutional racism – despite the findings of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry in 1999.

That would be bad enough but for the fact that very similar findings and recommendations were made by the Blackwood Inquiry ‘Big Black and Dangerous? ’ chaired by Professor Herschel Prins and published in 1993. Orville Blackwood is just one of a number of black men including Michael Martin and Joseph Watts, who died in mental health hospitals in the early late eighties and early nineties. Their deaths led to a variety of official reports, none of which seems to have made a lasting difference

But it is not only at the extremes where cultural bias leads to inappropriate response.

The terms ‘picking rice’ and ‘washing rice’ will need no explanation to the majority of people from the Caribbean. White people born in England may view the time-consuming extraction of bad rice grains by hand and the repeated rinsing of the picked rice to remove the dirt as deviant when it is in fact, a daily behaviour based on African health and hygiene standards. It would pass without comment in any Caribbean island but has caused great consternation here.

Speaking aloud to the ancestors as practiced by many African ethnic groups is a clear sign of ‘madness’ to many Europeans,  as is putting food next to their loved ones’ gravestones. Putting flowers next to a loved one’s grave is perfectly normal, however, as ‘we’ all do that – even though the dead will never see or smell the flowers anymore than they will eat the rice.

When Bengali women complain to a mental health professional that ‘their head is on fire’ the comment may be written down as evidence of delusional behaviour because the white professional may have no knowledge that this a cultural term to indicate a headache.

However, if a white English woman were to report she felt ‘pins and needles in her arms’ no explanation is necessary.  ‘We’ will understand culturally that she does not really have pins or needles inserted in her arm and that it is merely a cultural expression immediately appreciated for what it is – so long as one is from, or aware of that culture.

From the 18th to the 21st centuries we find that that black men are subject to extreme violence and neglect while in the care of white authority. African/Caribbean behaviour is assessed from a European perspective, often with no hint of knowledge of African/Caribbean culture or indeed European history/culture with regard to their view of African people.

Normal behaviours can be seen as bizarre or unhinged. This results in mis-diagnosis, the use of excessive force or the application of drugs to control the person.

Rates of being forcibly restrained under the Mental Health Act are double for African Caribbean’s than for white patients; African-Caribbean men are six times more likely to be sectioned than their white counterparts. Might this have something to do with the colonial legacy that blacks are dangerous and violent and need great force to keep them under control for their own good?

Although the late Frantz Fanon was an internationally renowned psychiatrist, as well as a writer and philosopher, his work is strangely absent from most university and mental health courses.  One of his quotes which aptly describes the treatment of black people in mental health:

“Racism has its own flawless logic. A country which lives by and draws its substance from the exploitation of different peoples inferiorizes those people. The racist treatment of those people is normal.”