AFIYA — Nothing Black is Alien to Us

 A 5-step Crisis-busting Program for Black psychiatrists

By Thomas L Blair 25 November 2017 ©

Dr Aggrey W Burke
Dr Aggrey W Burke

As the degradation of the Black mentally ill and the collapse of community solidarity unfold, Dr Aggrey W Burke and many other Black psychiatrists make a clear and valid point.

Black psychiatrists and health workers are better equipped to address the Black mental health and care crisis than the followers of the Viennese polymath, Sigmund Freud.

Increasingly and convincingly, more than a half century of evidence supports this view. African and Afro-Caribbean psychiatrists and medical scientists have contributed to mental health knowledge and practice. Collectively, they reject the false equation that Eurocentric “normal” is good for everyone. Each sought to apply the healing qualities of the Black experiences.

 “It takes a village” – Communal effort has a role in treating mental illness

It is a little known fact that Thomas Adeoye Lambo was the first Black trained psychiatrist in the UK. As a hospital administrator in colonial Nigeria, he created the Aro Village system of community psychiatry in 1954. Radically, he rejected the cast-off shackles of Bedlam Britain. Instead, he treated patients with a combination of modern curative techniques and traditional resources. Uniquely, Lambo’s Aro was an open village attuned to the harsh realities of a changing society.

Combatting the self-hatred that stifles Black consciousness

Working in hospitals in Algeria, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s masterful studies of the impact of French colonial racism are major contributions to psychiatry and politics. The Martinique-born Afro-Caribbean made his revolutionary intentions clear. The coloniser’s dictat that Algerians must be “lactified” (made a carbon copy white) and “culturally French” to be free, was unacceptable.

Fanon saw the dangers and the revolutionary solutions. He said “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.”

Therefore, psychiatry should be more than a medical technique; it must “assert that the Arab, who is permanently alienated in his own country, lives in a state of absolute depersonalisation”.

Those who feel it, know it

In Britain, psychiatrist and lecturer at St Georges Hospital Dr Aggrey W Burke has exposed the links between deprivation and mental illness in hard-hit Black communities.

Furthermore, he uncovers the prejudices that affect Black mental health care. These skills support his work with and for the unheard. Those who are sidelined and silenced in hostile urban environments.

Moreover, born in Jamaica, his patients benefit from his knowledge of prominent icons of West Indian culture. Among them the Jamaican national hero and Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, “Black redemption” singer, songwriter and musician Bob Marley, and the Rastafarian movement. They are the guiding light for Black people, he has said.

Challenging Local Authorities to Save Our Troubled Children

Championing children’s rights was the major contribution of Dr Waveney Bushell. She was the first educated community psychologist of African Caribbean origin to practice in the UK.

Bushell is best known as a campaigner for Black children erroneously classified as Educationally Sub-Normal (ESN). For 24 years she rescued them from segregated, under-served special schools.

Furthermore, she challenged the prevailing, crudely racist, practices. Local authorities and mental health managers were too quick to expel “unruly” Black school chidren. Too prone to lock schoolchildren into mental hospitals, diagnosed as “emotionally disoriented.”

Moreover, Bushell was a community educator. She introduced teachers and community workers to Bernard Coard’s influential publication ‘How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System’.

Protect, educate and stand up for equality in the health system

Black Londoners remember “Rebel” mental health campaigner Peter Scott Blackman. The Afiya (Black well-being) Trust director worked to “reduce racial inequalities in mental health and social care provision”.

Once stricken himself, the recovering Blackman perfected his self-inspired goal in community work. Notably, in the Black Carers Network and through his Steel an’ Skin band of Nigerian and Trinidadian youth.

No stranger to pre-war prejudice, Blackman was one of the few Black children born in Britain before the Windrush generation. He recalls, “he suffered the full gamut of racism, for a time entirely alone”.

Black facts matter

Depressingly, there are thousands of people of colour caught up in the mental health system. Isolated, they do not, and cannot, question their culturally deficient treatment. Therefore, they are forced to succumb to it.


  • 51 per cent of patients in a London psychiatric hospital were Black yet less than 17 per cent of the British population are from ethnic minorities
  • 28 black people per 100,000 of the population end up in secure units compared with four white people per 100,000
  • 100 African-Caribbean and African mental health patients were interviewed in a study and almost half had been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia
  • 88 per cent of Black people in a survey said they had been forcibly restrained under the Mental Health Act

Now the threatening crisis starts to brighten

The evidence suggests that Black therapists have a positive role to play. Especially psychiatrists and community health workers in the “talking therapies”.

They could actually do a better job of understanding and treating the effects of race inequalities in mental illness.

In addition, of diverse backgrounds themselves, they can speak and heal in all the European coloniser’s languages and dialects.

Black mental health professionals can make a difference

These attributes make Black therapists and clinicians more capable than their colleagues. They can make a difference for traumatised Black patients and communities in a five-step program

  1. On a theoretical level, their Black knowledge and self-experience are essential contributions to patient treatment.
  2. Therapists and clinicians have a Black cultural awareness and competency.
  3. They can recognise that “normal behaviour” is a Eurocentric yardstick that must be re-defined.
  4. Moreover, they will score high on offering Black patients the best professional practice techniques and analysis of results.
  5. This will close the gap between the medical reality of mental health practitioners and the lived reality of their patients.

Expand the pool of Black therapists – The added value is considerable

Therefore, I strongly urge a new line of research that will answer the question: Do Black Britons experience better treatment results when paired with clinicians of similar race and background?

Such commanding attributes add value to Black mental health care. However, the qualified implementers must be increased.

Studies report there are only a paltry few, perhaps 50 Black British psychiatrists among the estimated 9,000 members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Pave the way from Black bedlam to betterment

The work of Black psychiatrists and others has shone light on one of the most urgent issues. Promoting curing rather than Bedlam-like aggressive containment of Black people.

Therefore, prominent Black organisations must work together to protect the rights of the mentally ill. Among them Black Thrive, the Black Mental Health UK and the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network.

Supporting the ongoing patient treatment and recovery efforts of Black professionals is urgent. Forging independent partnerships with local communities is essential. Launching new funds for racial and ethnic diversity in the health system is crucial.

Thank you for reading through and I invite you to send me your comments.