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The Silent Majority: on helping BAME communities speak about mental health

Mental Health

Jordan Edwards (pictured), speaks to Shaun Pascal, Detective Constable in the Met and co-founder of Black Wall Street Media about working to change institutions and mindsets.

It’s well reported that ethnic minorities are far less likely to seek help for mental health issues despite, in some cases, being more vulnerable to them. I sat down with Shaun Pascal, serving Detective Constable in the Metropolitan Police and co-founder of Black Wall Street Media, to discuss the role society has to play and what we can do to change things.

Jordan: Before we kick off, can you tell us a bit more about yourself and how you found yourself in the police force?

Shaun: I’ve been a police officer for 17 and a half years. I joined later in life compared to many of my counterparts – I was 31, so I had some life experience. The last 11 years I’ve worked in specialist crime which consists of working on murders and all the big stuff, so I’ve enjoyed that. On the whole I’ve been lucky, I’ve had a good career when compared to some of my other colleagues – I’ve been blessed in one sense.

Do you think that life experience that you were talking about helped you in a way? Compared to officers who join very young and aren’t quite wise to the world.

Yeah, I think so but everyone’s different. Everyone has different life experience when growing up. Some people grow up quicker than others. So I wouldn’t knock the fact that someone young is joining. In some ways I wish I had joined younger – I had more energy. For me, a big part of my learning has actually taken place being in the police. So if I’d have joined when I was younger, I might have learned a lot more and not wasted my twenties – probably some of the best years of my life.

In all of the experiences you’ve had working with the community and particular parts of society, do you feel that being a black officer helped you gain people’s trust? Or maybe they just felt slightly safer in your hands.

I don’t think being a black officer is enough. I think you have to be a black officer and you have to be yourself. You have to be comfortable with who you are and not try to be someone you’re not, just to fit in. So when people see your authentic self and they can relate to you and you can relate and empathise with them, that’s when you can win over their trust and confidence.

Do you think that you’re given more of an opportunity to do that given that you’re not approaching them with the same unconscious biases that another officer might have?

Yeah it helps but ultimately its about respect. It’s about how you treat that individual. And for me it doesn’t matter who’s put in front of me, I always treat them with respect. I’m not there to judge them. I understand their anger, I understand their frustration. I don’t know their life story but I’m here to listen and I’m here to make sure that their rights are observed, even when I’m doing my job because ultimately all I want to do is get to the truth, and the truth may be that they’re innocent. So, that’s how I approach things and that’s how the people I’ve worked with over my career have dealt with situations and when I’ve seen people going down the wrong path, I’ve questioned, I’ve challenged, but it’s not always an easy thing to do.

Is there enough of an onus on the Met Police for them to understand the communities they serve and develop positive relationships with them? The prevailing view of the organisation is that officers can be heavy-handed where it’s perhaps uncalled for. From your perspective, is there enough being done from the inside to try and change that or do you think maybe it doesn’t need changing as much as it’s portrayed?

No, it definitely needs changing. I think those within that understand the issues and want to help are doing the best they can but I think the onus is really on us, the community, to bring our experience, our expertise, our understanding of our cultural identity and the issues going on within our communities because we are best placed to solve those problems and as much as the Met can try, there’s only so much they can do in terms of having the passion, the will and the understanding to fix these issues. That’s why I encourage people from all different backgrounds to join the police because like I said you are best placed to understand the problems, filter the information and know what changes need to be made. And it’s not about joining and integrating or trying to fit in. No! It’s about bringing yourself, bringing your community and standing out in the Met – that’s what’s needed.

From what I understand, there are some departments which won’t allow you to work in your own local area. Is that the same across the board? I feel like there would be a much more positive relationship between an officer and a community if it’s their own.

It’s down to the individual. There’s nothing preventing you from working in your own local borough. It’s not something that’s encouraged because obviously there can be complications – there can be issues that arise and you don’t want these issues on your doorstep. As good as you are at your job and as respectful as you are to your community, it just takes one person who doesn’t like you for whatever reason and you leave yourself open. You have to think about your family as well. You may have signed up to be a police officer but they haven’t signed up so you have to think about all the worst case scenarios.

With regards to unconscious biases, how much do you think we internalise and almost create a self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘this is how they want us to be’?

I think it’s a huge problem, particularly amongst the older generation because a lot of us have this mindset that nothing’s going to change and we’ve kind of given up in a way. We look down at our own community in some ways and we look up to the white community as somewhere to aspire to be. So until we unlearn all this negativeness towards ourselves and towards our community, we’re going to struggle. So we really need to change our mindset and for our young people to acknowledge and see themselves as the great people they are with the great ancestry of who they are. They need to see people that resemble them in all walks and professions. Not just music, not just sport but as lawyers, doctors, CEO’s – intellectuals. And they’re out there! They’ve just not been put out there by the media because it doesn’t sell newspapers and it doesn’t fit their narrative. Unfortunately when you see a person of colour, it’s in a negative context. They’re linked to criminality or it’s to do with rap music or sport and it sort of ends there. So we need to change mindsets.

It has seemed for a long time that ethnic minorities have had to behave in a certain way just to avoid a negative portrayal. For example, N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba are treated so differently by the media largely based on their temperament. When we look at examples of successful black people, do we see more examples of assimilation to what we might call ‘the white norm’ or does it pay to just be yourself, whatever that might mean?

The way they portray Paul Pogba is almost stereotyping and they make that out to be a negative thing and it may simply be the case that he doesn’t want to follow the status quo. He just wants to be Paul Pogba and that’s fine – just be yourself. That’s the problem, if you try and be yourself, if you try to be an individual and embrace who you are; your culture and everything, the mainstream tends to not like that – and you’re seen as rebellious.

Do you think there’s any way for the established media outlets to change the narratives they put out?

I think firstly that the microscope needs to be turned around on the journalist. Let’s look at the person who’s writing these articles because it says more about them. I’d hope they’d start to think twice about writing these sorts of articles when the spotlight’s on them. Let’s ask questions of them. How did you come to this view? Where did you get your information from? How reliable are your sources? That’s how you address it, you turn it around on them.

In terms of newspapers changing their ways – you need leverage. Leverage is the only way you’ll get them to change. When they see that readers aren’t buying into what they’re writing and their figures drop, they will have to change their ways and I’m already seeing some newspapers put a lot more stories out there on issues of race and diversity because that’s what their readers want to know about.

How much of that do you think is genuine and how much could be labelled ‘virtue signalling’?

I don’t know whether it’s genuine or not. I think it’s going to be a bit of both. For me, it’s not a question of whether it’s genuine, it’s more that it’s happening and we’re forcing it to happen. So, whatever their intent, they’ll do whatever they want to do because it’s about money at the end of the day, for them. People will want to capitalise on these issues. But as long as these issues are out there in whatever format and that we’re talking and engaging that can only be a good thing because unless we talk about these things and have dialogue, we’re going to struggle to come up with solutions. People need to be educated on these things as long as the stuff that’s being put out there is factual.

In your experience, is there a stigma in black communities in particular when it comes to mental health?

Yeah, I think there is a stigma attached to mental health – not just in the black community but in the Asian community and many other communities. This is reflected in the statistics when you look at how many people from these communities actually seek help through the NHS for mental health issues. The figures are very low; less than 1%. Growing up, our parents just had to get on with it. They didn’t have time for self-pity or to reflect on what was going on; they just had to dig in because they had to survive and put food on the table. I think younger people nowadays are a lot more aware of mental health which is a good thing but I think there’s a lot more work to be done yet because there’s a lot of generational trauma that needs to be addressed and what you see now is that trauma playing out in so many different ways; through gang violence, unemployment and all these other things. So I think the only thing we can do right now is to address that trauma by tackling it when people are at an early age through schooling and education. Young people need to have an outlet where they can talk out their issues, so they can be dealt with at a young age and it doesn’t impact on them in later years, otherwise it just builds up and builds up and it can destroy your whole future. It’s something that isn’t taken seriously enough. There needs to be a lot more research and a lot more understanding as to the importance of it. More importantly it needs to be filtered out into the communities.

Do you think that the historical trauma of slavery that has bled through the generations can have an impact on the ambition and drive of individuals in predominantly white countries where unconscious biases are so prevalent?

Yeah, definitely. It has transcended down the line – things that took place during times of slavery and there’s a lot to undo and it will take time. But yes, I do think there are people who have inherited some of that trauma, definitely.

What impact do you think Black Wall Street Media can have on the mental health of us as a community? Do you think it has the potential to change not only the narrative but also the way we view ourselves?

Yes, absolutely. It is having an impact. It will continue to have an impact because it’s showing all the best of what our communities have. But it’s also showing other communities that we’re not all about knife crime. And we’re not all about this narrative that mainstream media push out there. That’s all a lie! This is who we are! And we could be a whole lot more if you give us the opportunity. And it’s important that we understand our value because too often we sell ourselves short.

To finish off then; what, for you, is the essence of happiness and how do we give economically poor/ethnic minority communities the best chance at a happy life?

Good question. What makes me happy is having a sense of purpose. We all need a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging. We all need to recognise that we all have value and we all can bring something to the table to help others and to help the greater good. It doesn’t matter how small or insignificant it may be – it all helps, but more importantly when we all learn to do this and think as a collective rather than individuals, we can make the impossible happen – we can achieve. Historically we’ve seen what happens when communities get together. We’ve seen last year what happened when Black Lives Matter got together and the power that has. There’s this myth out there that annoys me sometimes that black people can’t work together. It’s not true. We can, we do and here’s the evidence. And that’s part of that colonialised thinking to hold us back and not liberate ourselves is to think that we can’t do it when in actual fact we can and we can do it well.

 

If you want to find out more about Black Wall Street Media and the work they are doing over there, make sure you go and check out www.blackwallst.media

 

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