Young people’s wellbeing
Young people’s wellbeing

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Young people’s wellbeing

3.3 The mental health of young black men

According to the Health Development Agency, ‘Young black men are over-represented in the mental health statistics’ (Health Development Agency, 2001, p. 36), particularly in terms of diagnosis for schizophrenia, which is generally three times higher for the African-Caribbean population than for the UK white population (Nazroo, 1997). Young black men are over-represented in hospital admissions for mental health problems, contact with psychiatry via the police, courts and prison, and at the same time are under-represented in outpatient and self-referral services (Pilgrim and Rogers, 1999). They are more likely to be admitted to mental health facilities compulsorily, and once there, more likely to be placed in locked wards. African-Caribbeans generally are over-represented in statistics for psychiatric disorders and under-represented in neurotic disorders. Schizophrenia and ‘cannabis psychosis’ are often given as the diagnosis, but the validity of both of these has been questioned by researchers (Fernando et al., 1998).

Figure 2
© Photodisk ©
© Photodisk
Figure 2 Young black men are often treated unfairly by mental health services

Activity 6 Young black men and mental health

0 hours 15 minutes

How can we account for young black men's experience of the mental health system? Make a list of any possible explanations that occur to you.


Writers and researchers have offered a range of different reasons for young black men's apparently disproportionate experience of mental health difficulties, and for their particular experience of mental health services. The following provides a brief summary of some of the most common explanations.

Explanations that rely on racist stereotypes of black people in general, and young black men in particular, are now academically and politically discredited, but it can be argued that their influence lingers at the level of popular assumptions. In the fairly recent past it was not uncommon to read ‘explanations’ of poverty, unemployment or health problems among minority ethnic groups that pathologised black people, their family structures and cultures. This kind of stereotyping persists in more recent debates about young people of Asian origin, which attribute their mental health and other problems to the supposed roles and relationships within Asian families. Avtar Brah has criticised this kind of ‘ethnicism’ which ‘defines the experience of racialised groups primarily in “culturalist” terms’, and views cultural needs as ‘independent of other social experiences centred around class, gender, racism or sexuality’, with the result ‘that a group identified as culturally different is assumed to be internally homogeneous’ (Brah, 1992, p. 129). Along similar lines, Waqar Ahmad criticises the ‘racialization’ of health research in which it is assumed ‘that the population can be meaningfully divided into “ethnic” or “racial” groups, taking these as primary categories and using these categories for explanatory purposes’, and which means that issues of class and income are overlooked and ‘issues of institutional and individual racism as determinants of health status or healthcare become peripheral at best’ (Ahmad, quoted in Kelleher, 1996, p. 72).

Critics of ‘culturalist’ explanations, such as Brah and Ahmad, tend to attribute young black men's experience of mental health problems to the impact of institutional racism. However, even if the impact of racism is admitted, there are at least two distinctive ways in which it can be said to have impacted on mental health.

One account offers what we might call a ‘realist’ model, seeing young black men's mental health difficulties as real rather than imaginary, and laying the blame squarely on their experience of institutional racism. For example, Tony Sewell (1997) argues that the UK school system provides young black men with a choice between two strong models, either to conform and be more British than white people or to play up to the stereotype of the rebel. He suggests that expectations by the wider society can create identity problems for young black men, and that these may lead to mental health problems. A more ‘constructionist’ argument is proposed by Fernando et al. (1998), who argue that young black men are misdiagnosed by the mental health system, which tends to operate on the basis of limited or inadequate knowledge of black communities and using stereotypical expectations of young black men's behaviour.

These two accounts are not necessarily contradictory. It is possible that young African-Caribbeans are both more vulnerable to mental health difficulties, due to their experience of racism at school and in the wider society, and treated in a discriminatory way by mainstream mental health services. As we saw in the case study of eating disorders in Section 2, a critical perspective on young people's wellbeing sees the development of health ‘problems’ as complex and multi-layered, with individual, institutional and broader social factors interacting with each other.

This section has used the example of mental health to explore some of the ways in which young people's wellbeing is shaped by social divisions, such as those of gender and ethnicity. Although class has not been discussed in this section, there is evidence from the work of MacDonald and Marsh (2005) and others that poverty and social exclusion also play a significant role in shaping young people's mental and emotional wellbeing. The ways in which diversity and inequality impact on wellbeing challenge generalised narratives that tell of a general ‘decline’ in young people's health. The complex interactions of social and cultural contexts with individual experience that we have seen demonstrated in these examples also undermine any attempts to produce straightforward or simplistic explanations.

Section 4 of the course moves on from analysing young people's experience to exploring ways in which their wellbeing can be developed and promoted, taking forward the critical framework that we have been using here.

Key points

  • While mental and emotional difficulties can be viewed as a feature of ‘normal’ adolescent development, there is evidence that some groups of young people are more vulnerable than others and that the experience of mental health is influenced by factors such as gender, class and ethnicity.

  • Young people's experience of mental health is strongly gendered, with young women at greater risk of eating disorders and self harm, and young men having higher rates of suicide.

  • Young black men appear to experience a disproportionately high rate of mental health problems and to suffer from institutionalised racism at the hands of mental health services.


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