African and Caribbean people can be reluctant to talk openly about mental health issues, but a music and arts festival is aiming to encourage them to open up, says Sandra Griffiths.

Studies have shown that African and Caribbean people with mental health problems often feel shunned by their communities, friends and families. When the double stigma of mental health and racism is added into the mix, the experience of isolation and rejection can be worse than the symptoms of the illness itself.

Part of the problem is the lack of dialogue in African and Caribbean communities about mental health. Then there are the alarming statistics on black mental health, such as African Caribbean people being 3-5 times more likely than any other group to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital for schizophrenia. All of which can make already stereotyped communities feel stigmatised.

But there are attempts to address this. For instance, the Stereo-Hype Festival, taking place at Stratford Circus in East London on January 25 and 26, aims to get African and Caribbean people to talk openly about mental health and stigma. Hosted by Time to Change and Mellow, an East London-based mental health organisation, this free interactive event will use drama, film, dance, spoken word, art installations and panel debates to challenge the stereotypes within black communities.

Belonging is the festival’s core theme as mental health stigma can act as a barrier to developing and maintaining relationships within families and communities and between friends. Some groups within communities are intolerant of different behaviours and ideas, which has serious implications for people who are mentally unwell, according to work done by Dr Kwame McKenzie.

Over the two days, the Stereo-Hype Festival will use ‘social contact’, a model applied by Time to Change at previous events. Visitors will have the opportunity to engage in dialogue with 50 trained volunteers, largely made up of African Caribbean people with a lived experience of, or a close association with, mental health problems. The volunteers will be available to chat and challenge prejudice, stigma and discrimination in an informal celebratory setting.

Visitors will also have the chance to participate in a range of activities, which reflect community development principles, such as dialogue, contact and community ownership. Workshops will focus on topics such as faith as a resilience tool and the wellbeing of young people, while an Alternative Therapy Zone will offer head and shoulder massages, reiki and reflexology.

Black Men on the Couch will see two top sportsmen, boxer Herol “Bomber” Graham and Chelsea’s first black footballer Paul Canoville, being interviewed by Rotimi Akinsete, a therapeutic counsellor and clinical supervisor, on their mental health experiences.

Dr Michael McMillan has created a West Indian front room installation where people can sit and talk about mental health within an intimate setting. An anti-stigma play, Time to Change, has been produced by playwright Tony Dallas with service users and young people from NEW VIC College, Newham.

The Stereo-Hype Festival will celebrate the strengths and achievements of African and Caribbean people with an experience of mental health problems, and will highlight how arts and culture are central to changing public opinion.  

But for initiatives like these to successfully tackle mental health stigma in the long-term, they must be part of a comprehensive and national response. If not, future generations will just be left with an array of depressing statistics. We can do better than that.


Sandra Griffiths is director of Mellow.


Time to Change is run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness and is funded by the Department of Health and Comic Relief.


Follow the Stereo-Hype Festival on Twitter: @StereoHype2013