Birmingham project tackles inequalities in mental health

Studies show that black men are around three times more likely than the general population to be admitted to a psychiatric unit. They have consistently higher rates of detention under the Mental Health Act and are more likely to come into contact with services at a point of crisis, through the criminal justice system.

Once they have accessed services, research shows that African and Caribbean men are more likely to have negative experiences; A UK survey of individuals from minority ethnic groups with mental health problems found that 28% of black Caribbean and 31% of African respondents reported that they had directly experienced racism within services during the preceding 12 months.

The issues behind these statistics are complex and multifaceted. Research shows that levels of fear and mistrust of mental health services are high for African and Caribbean groups and this is reinforced by negative experiences. Stigma within some African and Caribbean communities and a lack of access to information about services can add further barriers to seeking help early on. When intervention occurs later, potentially involving the police, experiences are more likely to be negative.

A new project launched in Birmingham in 2014 aims to tackle some of these underlying issues using the individual experiences of young men of African and Caribbean descent. ‘300 Voices’ was the result a partnership between Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Trust and mental health campaign group, Time to Change. The project brought together a variety of voices including mental health professionals, community leaders, police officers and African and Caribbean men with experience of mental health problems, through workshops.

The workshops aimed to create a dialogue between these different groups. At the centre of the project however are the voices of African and Caribbean men themselves. Through the workshops, the men were encouraged to share their experiences as a starting point for discussions.

Beresford Dawkins, Community Engagement Manager at Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Trust and member of the 300 Voices project team, explained, “There is enough data and enough research about African and Caribbean males…but to give the men the opportunity to tell their stories in the way they wanted to tell their stories was the real essence of the project.”

Through this process of story-telling the project aims to empower African and Caribbean males, help them to feel more confident speaking about their mental health and build their emotional resilience. In turn, by listening to their experiences, professionals can deepen their understanding of the challenges African and Caribbean men face and improve the way services are delivered. By facilitating a dialogue between different groups, the project also hopes to break down the fear and mistrust many African and Caribbean men associate with mental health services.

One participant described how, although he had had negative experiences in the past, “just seeing all the people from the different services coming together…it showed me that they cared, that they weren’t trying to avoid the issue; like me, they wanted to change things for the better.”

A Sergeant from West Midlands Police also felt the workshops were significant in breaking down barriers between organisations and African and Caribbean men:

“I met this young man at a 300 Voices workshop. He was so angry and so frustrated at what had happened to him. He told us his story. Thanks to the 300 Voices workshop, it was amazing to see how this young man now trusted us to help him. If it wasn’t for 300 Voices, we wouldn’t have been able to have that conversation with him.”

Through these conversations the project hopes to bring about long-term change in attitudes and actions. The Sergeant explained how 300 Voices had prompted the force to change its approach:

“We’re talking much more, being open and honest. When we deal with people with mental health problems, we deploy a mental health nurse to conduct an assessment to ensure everyone gets the right help and support. Our police officers understand how their actions can influence whether an individual seeks help next time or not.”

300 Voices Time to ChangeEngagement activities and workshops took place in Birmingham throughout 2014 and 2015

The pilot phase of 300 Voices is now complete but its legacy is far from over. In Birmingham organisers hope the long-term impact of the project will be far-reaching.

“When you develop such positive relationships with the men the project doesn’t just come to an end. It’s about the next phase of the project – how do we develop a legacy from that?” explained Mr Dawkins.

As part of this next phase a peer-support programme is being developed to further support African and Caribbean men who have experienced mental health difficulties. Mentors and group activities support individuals in developing their skills and confidence to help get them back into work or education and to aid their recovery. Some of the original participants in 300 Voices have even gone on to become peer mentors themselves.

Beyond Birmingham a project based on the 300 Voices model has since been launched in South London and a toolkit has been created for other organisations to use as a resource to set up their own 300 Voices project.

Whilst individuals are at the heart of 300 Voices, it’s aims extend beyond this. The 300 Voices model is a starting point for bringing about wider changes in attitudes to tackle stigma and inequalities faced by African and Caribbean men in mental health services across the country.