'It's time for healing': CBC's Uncensored looks at the mental health toll of anti-Black racism

"Black communities have been making calls for better mental health services for too long," Dr. Fatimah Jackson-Best tells host Alexa Joy. "The calls are now deafening — it's a scream. The community knows what the community needs."

More support is needed for mental health in Black communities, says host Alexa Joy

'We need consistent advocacy for mental health support,' says Uncensored host Alexa Joy. (Submitted by Alexa Joy)

In a society that continues to tragically fail Black people, intentionally ignoring our calls to action, pain and public suffering, we cannot afford to wait for institutions to act on our behalf.

Rather, when we feel their negligence, we do the work ourselves. Tirelessly, we work and work and work to secure resources to make our time in this country a tad more bearable, especially when it comes to our mental health. 

When I was organizing in Winnipeg a couple of years ago, there was a quiet buzz consuming the city that called into question the lack of mental health support for Black people in Manitoba.  

These concerns — which have been expressed time and time again — left me energized to facilitate a space that addressed the very lack of community and institutional support that prioritized Black mental health. 

In time, the first instalment of Project Heal was created. 

At the time, co-facilitators Nedu Ejeckam and Sapphyre Mcleod and myself established a program to support better mental health practices for Black people in Winnipeg to work through the trauma of anti-Black racism — and to do so in an environment where they felt safe, validated in their experiences and introduced to Black health care practitioners to seek further support.

In short — Black people healing with Black people. 

In co-organizing the first instalment of Project Heal, I learned that most of the participants involved never had a space to be vulnerable with other Black people. And hearing from Black health-care professionals was essential for participants to open up and feel comfortable — but there wasn't a program at the time that solely focused on Black mental health. 

Not to say there were never previous attempts to facilitate spaces like Project Heal. But you have to wonder why it's taken so long for Black mental health initiatives to be developed and be institutionally supported. 

The right to feel vulnerable, having our experiences validated and creating space to heal were all sentiments expressed in this week's episode of Uncensored, titled It's Time for Healing.

'We need spaces where it is safe to acknowledge our mental health struggles,' says Leslie Hackett. 'It means that we're human.' (James Anderson)

This week, marriage and family therapist and current co-facilitator of Project Heal, Leslie Hackett, was in conversation with Dr. Fatimah Jackson-Best, Project Manager at the Black Health Alliance in Toronto. Together, Hackett and Jackson-Best reminded listeners why Canada can no longer excuse the health disparities caused by systemic oppression.

"Research can feel intrusive or feel like our communities can be over-sampled, but research is our currency. If we don't have research or race-based data wholesale across this country, how will we support our communities?" says Jackson-Best. 

Research also forces governments and institutions to pay attention.

One of the most recent efforts included a $19-million commitment from the government of Canada to enhance local community support for youth at risk and support more culturally focused mental health programs for Black Canadians. 

The Promoting Health Equity: Mental Health of Black Canadians Fund, administered by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), addressed some of these inequities through the $19-million investment provided. PHAC distributed $4.9 million through incubator and implementation streams for Black-led organizations to conduct and develop research and programming to promote mental health in Black communities.  

This would be a step in the right direction if this continues after a four-year timeline. 

One-off "funding opportunities" for Black Canadians should be the loudest reminder that Black people remain on the outskirts of the health-care system. We're statistically one of the last groups (next to Indigenous communities) to be an afterthought, neglected, abandoned, disregarded when it comes to securing mental health support. 

If we didn't have a systemic issue, there would not be a fund in place to humour the calls to action in addressing dismal resources for Black mental health supports. 

'Screaming for change'

The cynicism in my tone outlines how much further we have to go. Even the wording of the fund to "promote health equity" — not "securing health equity," "establishing health equity," "enhancing health equity" — but a promotion. A promotion including $19-million, spread over four years, for the entire Black Canadian population, won't correct centuries of systemic trauma and oppression. It barely scratches the surface. 

This critique is also not to disregard the hard work of mental health advocates, practitioners and activists who've worked tirelessly, round the clock, investing and putting emotional labour to help develop this funding. But it should encourage the public to think critically — how are the leftovers and crumbs from our government somehow supposed to give us hope? 

We all know that systems fail us, and therefore this systemic failure shapes our resistance and reasons to act. 

On mental health supports for Black communities, 'the community knows what the community needs,' says Dr. Fatimah Jackson-Best. (Submitted by Fatimah Jackson-Best)

In the second instalment of Project Heal, Hackett shared why Black-led programs are essential in establishing trust within and across Black communities.

"The stereotypes of the super-strong, unbreakable Black woman, hypermasculine Black man, indestructible, completely resilient who can withstand pain without showing any signs of stress, doesn't mean we don't feel pain and are not vulnerable," Hackett says. 

"Sometimes we're uncomfortable to be vulnerable and need help, resulting in us not reaching out for support. We need spaces where it is safe to acknowledge our mental health struggles. It means that we're human."

We are past the point of making calls. We are screaming for change.- Alexa Joy

Institutions will always dictate how long our healing process should be, as we've seen they think $19 million over four years to address systemic trauma and oppression is acceptable, almost as if saying, "Good luck and keep us posted."

This comes in a time where we are exposed to psychologically damaging media that reports anti-Black violence — and images that remind us there is no justice in this land, when it comes to Black Lives taken by the state. We are all experiencing live trauma and cannot ignore how it impacts us any longer. 

"Black communities have been making calls for better mental health services for too long," Jackson-Best says. "The calls are now deafening — it's a scream. The community knows what the community needs."

Hopefully this is a reminder to reposition the magnifying glass on Canadian systems that allow inexcusable pardons, denying the presence of anti-Blackness in this country. 

We need consistent advocacy for mental health support.  After all, we are past the point of making calls. We are screaming for change. 

CBC's Uncensored — a show airing on Information Radio, Thursdays at 7:35 a.m. CT — explores the realities facing Black communities in Canada, including Manitoba.  

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


Alexa Joy is a researcher, journalist and graduate student at The New School for Social Research.