Mental illness and African Nova Scotian communities | Opinion | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Mental illness and African Nova Scotian communities

Understanding heritage and ethnicity is the difference between healing and isolation.

Mental illness and African Nova Scotian communities
Raymond Sheppard is an African Nova Scotian veteran and social justice and human rights activist. He was born in Antigonish, but is from the small African Nova Scotian community of Lincolnville in Guysborough County. Sheppard is also a mental health and addiction counsellor, and a proud father of four.

From the 1960s on down, many labels have been placed on African Nova Scotians who exhibited differing behaviors. These labels include “learning disabled,” “crazy,” “animalistic,” et cetera. One could venture to say most psychologists and psychiatrists in the province of Nova Scotia have little or no understanding of the lives, culture, heritage, lineage and traditions of African Nova Scotians.

Psychologists and others are said to play an essential role in helping people modify their behaviour to prevent and recover from chronic mental and physical illnesses. But these roles are limited when there is little understanding of the African Nova Scotian experience.

African Nova Scotians are just as much candidates for mental illness as any others, yet have limited access to and receive substantially less treatment.

Although mental health professionals in Nova Scotia have extensive training, they lack culturally appropriate training. As far as I am aware, there are fewer than 10 African Nova Scotian mental health counsellors, including myself. There needs to be an increase in funding for mental health services that includes culturally-sensitive programming and services. This can help reduce stigma and reduce much of the suspicion that many African Nova Scotians have of the mental health system. Equally, such programs will increase awareness and provide culturally competent services that promote inclusion.

Many African Nova Scotians are suspicious of the extent of mental health system because they do not see themselves in the picture. Personally, I suffer from anxiety and the mental health professionals I have visited had no clue or understanding about my culture, heritage, customs, traditions or the impact that racism has had on my mental wellbeing. Likewise, my father and many other seniors in the community suffer high levels of mental distress based on the power and control of racism.

Many organizations, if they had the necessary funding in place, could be the instruments and vehicles for necessary change—especially if they’re non-profit. The key objectives of Afro-centric mental health services are programs and services based close to home, featuring community involvement (including set-up, monitoring and administration) and a timely response strategy to deal with youth in crisis in our communities.

There must be a concerted effort put forth to affect the action needed on Afro-centric mental health services. African Nova Scotians suffer in silence, not being privy to programs and services they can identify with. With differences in heritage, culture and lineage, the time is past due for services and programs that accommodate the unique differences of African Nova Scotians.

African Nova Scotians have been in Nova Scotia over 500 years, and deserve the same opportunities, considerations and health care as other Nova Scotians. With our aging population, federal and provincial governments have activated plans to attract and to bring others here, which is a good thing. But I encourage governments not to forget the peoplewho are already here.

We must develop and maintain the capacity to provide for all, not just the haves or the chosen few. To do so is to support and embrace diversity in all its splendour and glory.


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