Report on Black mental health a good first step, advocates say

A first-of-its-kind report that examined the mental health of Ottawa’s Black community is a good first step, but more action is needed to address health inequities caused by systemic racism and discrimination, community advocates say.

More action needed to address health inequities caused by systemic racism, discrimination

Robin Browne says collecting data to measure the unique mental health challenges faced by Black people in Ottawa is necessary to inform future policy progress. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

A first-of-its-kind report that examined the mental health of Ottawa's Black community is a positive first step, but more action is needed to address health inequities caused by systemic racism and discrimination, community advocates say.

Released by Ottawa Public Health (OPH) last week, the report surveyed 130 people from the city's African, Caribbean and Black communities to fill a data gap on their experiences and needs when it comes to accessing mental health services.

The report found that racism, police brutality and daily microaggressions are among the factors that negatively affect the mental health of Black people, while stigma and a fear of being judged prevent many from telling others about their struggles.

"That fear and that stigma is a barrier for people to getting help, [for] talking to their loved ones and people who support them," Hodan Aden, a public health nurse who supervised the report, told CBC Radio's All In A Day.

Of those who have sought help, the report found a large proportion reported feeling "prejudice or a negative attitude" from doctors or mental health workers who don't look like them or understand their lived experience.

"It's confirming a lot of the things that a lot of us in the Black community knew anecdotally," said Robin Browne, co-lead of advocacy group 613-819 Black Hub.

Browne said having data specifically about people in the Black community is vital because it provides a baseline against which future progress can be measured.

"If you don't count people, they don't count," he said.

César Ndéma-Moussa, president of the non-profit Roots and Culture Canada, says a report released by Ottawa Public Health that delves into mental health in Ottawa's Black community should translate into action. (CBC/Simon Gohier)

Much has changed in 2020

César Ndéma-Moussa, president of the non-profit Roots and Culture Canada, said the data included in the report is important but only provides a snapshot because it was gathered last year, before the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affected communities of colour and before a succession of police killings of minorities prompted widespread protests across Canada and the U.S.

"We know how the landscape in terms of social discourse, but also Black communities and mental health, has changed [since last year]," said Ndéma-Moussa.

Ndéma-Moussa also pointed out that the report — which covered a relatively small sample of the approximately 60,000 Black residents of Ottawa — didn't include immigration in its list of risk factors that could lead to negative mental health outcomes.

If you don't count people, they don't count.- Robin Browne, co-lead of 613-819 Black Hub.

The report did identify unemployment and financial insecurity as two risk factors, but Ndéma-Moussa thinks the unique experience of immigrants should also be represented in the research.

"It's a lot harder to have financial stability when you have family overseas that is expecting and asking for you to help them financially," he said.

Both Ndéma-Moussa and Browne said measures to improve mental health in the Black community need to go beyond research.

Browne said organizations could use the report's findings on the importance of employment to set hiring targets for Black employees and back them up with enforcement measures. Ndéma-Moussa said governments should increase investments in education, mentoring and training to attract more Black people into mental health professions.

Research to inform anti-racism secretariat

Among the report's other findings, 66 per cent of those surveyed said they believe most people look down at others who have a mental illness. 

Forty per cent also said that taking treatment for a mental health problem is a sign of personal failure.

Coun. Rawlson King, who also serves as Ottawa's liaison for anti-racism and ethnocultural relations, said the OPH report will help to inform the work of the city's new anti-racism secretariat. 

The body was approved by Council in June, with a $100,000 budget for 2020. Yusra Osman, a Black educator, social worker and mental health counsellor, was hired as the city's anti-racism specialist to help run the office.

King is calling on the city to boost spending on social services, including mental health, but he said more consultation is needed to further define community needs.

"We're going to have further conversation that will continue to flesh out what people in the African, Caribbean, Black communities, as well as other wider racialized and religious communities, want to see in terms of these types of services," he said.

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.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

With files from Joseph Tunney and CBC Radio's All In A Day

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