It is not often you discover a book which has the power to halt you in your tracks, that makes you digest it as slowly and intensely as possible and invites you to furiously underline sentences and passages on every page. The Colour of Madness, edited by Dr Samara Linton and Rianna Walcott, is an “anthology of art, poetry, short fiction, memoirs and essays” exploring the experiences of BAME mental health within the UK. In short, this book is fascinating, fundamental and I cannot recommend reading it highly enough.
Never have I read a book that paints such an accurate portrayal of mental health issues so well as this. It does so through the collaborative nature of its inception and the variety of voices it showcases. As a mental health sufferer, I understand the frustration and barriers there can be on the road to recovery. But as a white woman, I am privileged to access services which are more likely to provide me with adequate care, more likely to provide a therapeutic experience tailored to my social background and less likely to section me because of my race.
In their introduction and conclusions of this anthology, Linton and Walcott give centre-stage to the BAME voices often lost in the “white-washed narrative” of psychiatric discourse within the UK. The anthology clusters pieces into chapters named after colours from the visible colour spectrum, from the defiant, rage-filled Red to the surrealist, otherworldly Violet. By structuring pieces in this way, it avoids the simplistic, binary journey of “from suffering to healing” that often dictates stories of mental health. In reality it acknowledges the multi-faceted nature of mental health that oscillates from suffering to survival, recovery to relapse.
I was struck by how the colour blue in its eponymous chapter was used to symbolise mental health institutions, a trope that reminded me of the Confessional Poets from the 1950s, particularly Robert Lowell’s poem Waking in the Blue and Anne Sexton’s You, Doctor Martin. I couldn’t help but see familiarity in Sexton’s description of being institutionalised (“we stand in broken / lines and wait while they unlock / the door”) with Incognito by A.K. Rogers: “the place where all doors are locked behind me out of fear, / and the doors remained closed for the same reason.” It is demoralising to see such stark similarities in mental health institution-experiences across a sixty-year gap.
The most arresting aspect of this collection is the ability for the authors to use words and imagery to craft such realistic and striking portrayals of a variety of mental health experiences. I found aspects of my voice and experience within these pages. I also discovered information about experiences that did not apply to my life and found as much pleasure in learning about and gaining empathy for these new voices as I did hearing familiar stories. From experiencing panic attacks in a museum, to suffering from post-natal depression, to suicide attempts, to stories of recovery and growth, this collection is vital reading when beginning to understand a first-person perspective into mental health.
Some of my favourites include Boiling Kettles by Louisa Adjoa Parker, which illustrates the relentless, “endless loop of panic” within anxiety disorders, and Unprofessional by Ari Potter, which explores the claustrophobia when attempting to restrain and explain mental health issues at work. Many authors in the book discuss the need for us all to be educated in medical literacy, criticising complicated psychiatric discourse as so impenetrable it can ultimately alienate the very people it aims to help. This book deconstructs, breaks down and reinvents diagnoses, with each author able to identify themselves using their own language.
Every voice in the collection is from a BAME background, a term the editors themselves acknowledge as problematic as it places non-white people as “other”. They justify this by claiming there is “political power” in this term: “In bringing together the diverse identities that fall under the BAME umbrella, we acknowledge the collective disadvantage brought about by our radicalisation and minoritisation with regards to our mental health.” (Dr Samara Linton, Editor’s Introduction).
Linton explains that BAME people are “more likely to be admitted to psychiatric hospitals, detained under the Mental Health Act, and experience poor treatment outcomes.” This anthology explores the multitude of reasons this can happen, from ingrained, systemic bias displayed by psychiatrists and mental health professions, to the falsehoods that BAME people are more dangerous or are exaggerating their symptoms.
One particular story struck me regarding this topic. God Forbid, by Tarek Younis, is the final piece of the anthology. It follows a 22-year old Muslim man called Ahmed, who is severely distressed by his “addiction” to pornography and his fear that God is angry with him. On meeting his white therapist, Dr Brown, he begins to communicate his thoughts. This leads to a highly emotive and surreal experience where he breaks down and imagines an apparition of his body as a separate entity tormenting him.
When the story appears to show a breakthrough for both Ahmed and his therapist, wherein Ahmed feels freed by his confession and eager to continue therapy, the reader’s hope is shattered when his therapist remembers the “anti-radicalisation therapy” he recently completed and cannot delineate Ahmed from his Muslim identity. In the end, because “one can never be too cautious these days,” the therapist calls someone to report his “concerns” for Ahmed’s “potentially significant psychological vulnerability towards radicalisation.” Ahmed’s suffering is deeply misunderstood and neglected by the very person who should be safeguarding and supporting him. Resultantly, Ahmed is labelled a threat as he tries to seek help.
This sentiment is echoed in a variety of other pieces. In Asian on a White Ward in a White Town by Dylan Thin, he expresses how “I don’t feel the white psychiatrist I’ve had from the start understands me […] I think that’s another reason why a white psychiatrist will not understand the experiences of someone from a different culture. A more modern, open one could, but they would have to be someone who really does their research about all sorts of experiences.” In Priyanka Meenakshi’s Self Determination, her speaker who is talking to a paramedic as she is about to be sectioned says, “I nod and smile. I hope this will show them I am fine. […] I am even laughing along with her stupid racist jokes sometimes.”
The book, directly and indirectly, advocates for education and progress when understanding the nuances of BAME communities’ attitudes to mental health too. In The Stigma of Suicide by Kalwinder Singh Dhindsa, he discusses coming to terms with the suicide of his father and the stigma he observes within his Punjabi community who often treat mental health issues as taboo, and explores the idea that aspects of his Sikh faith directly oppose the acceptance of anyone with depressive, suicidal thoughts. He has a conclusively positive message, calling members of his community to disown the stigma of mental health issues by encouraging change, progression and education within their own institutions.
Cassie Addai, in On Becoming a Psychologist, echoes this view: “I believe that Pscyhology must acknowledge its own role in racism, in particular, its foundations upon a white, Western and individualistic knowledge base, which does not reflect the rich diversity of society.” Mental health support and discourse must be tailored to account for a greater diversity of experiences, races, social backgrounds and religions.
As the Black Lives Matter movement draws much-needed public attention to the variety of institutions in our country that operate on systemic racism, this book encourages and invites everyone to challenge their own ignorance and bias. It campaigns for the need for change within an already woefully underfunded mental health service in this country.
For those coming to this book seeking a homogeneous experience or “answer” to the BAME mental health narrative, they will be thankfully disappointed: the editors protest that “there is no single BAME experience, just as there is no single mental health story” and reminds us that “there is a whole person, an individual, behind each one”. This is a powerful message that resonates right to the end of the anthology, which ends with a list of biographies of the fifty contributors. These short biographies form a poignant reminder of the editors’ message; above all else, we are more than just our mental health issues, our race, our sexuality, our gender, our class. We are real, whole people.
The Colour of Madness: Exploring BAME Mental Health in the UK, edited by Dr Samara Linton and Rianna Walcott (Edinburgh: Stirling Publishing, 2018)
Life Studies, Robert Lowell (London: Faber & Faber, 2001)
Selected Poems, Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988)