The importance of remembering
Posted Thursday 13 October 2011
Patrick Vernon writes about some of the remarkable people who survived abuse in Victorian asylums and left their accounts for future generations, and why it’s so important to continue to record people's experiences. This part of our series for Black History Month.
Some readers may find the start of this blog triggering.
“I was stripped; my arms held behind me; my legs extended and forcibly separated from each other; I was plunged into the tank and kept under the water till all resistance on my part ceased; their [the nurses] grasp was then relaxed – I rose to the surface and breathed as if it were my last. Scarcely, however, had I drawn my breath when I was again subjected to the same horrible treatment, with the addition of having my head hurt against the sides of the tank, and my poor body beaten and contused with blows, till the fear of murder prompted them to desist.”
This is taken from Ann Pratt’s 1860 pamphlet called ’Seven Months in the Kingston Lunatic Asylum and what I saw there’. The harrowing account of a mixed race woman’s experience of sexual, physical and emotional abuse in colonial Jamaica.
150 years ago Ann Pratt was able to write about her experiences of maltreatment and overcoming racism alongside other women such as Phyllis Weatley, Mary Prince, and Mary Seacole. These accounts are now part of the national curriculum, teaching students that people of African descent are not just victims, but can shape and influence society and the world.
Thank goodness we don’t have the same level of extreme treatment in our mental health services today when compared with the asylums of colonial Jamaica or Victorian London. However, the Rocky Bennett Inquiry and other recent deaths in care remind us that the struggle for better services and accountability lives on. This is why the United Nations has declared 2011 the International Year for People of African Descent.
Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, is urging member states to continue and strengthen the political commitment to end racism and discrimination against people of African descent.
Unfortunately, it appears that the current Government’s policy on mental health has not taken this on board; especially with the demise of the Delivering Race Equality programme back in December 2010. In September the UN reviewed Britain’s performance on race equality over the last 10 years across areas such as health, education and criminal justice. The key recommendation, based on evidence submitted by the Government and NGOs (including Afiya), was that we need to have a new national race equality strategy as part of the commitment to tackling racial inequality .
Andrew Lansley and Paul Burstow need to develop a new race equality action plan to support the delivery of ‘No Health without Mental Health’. As a member of the Ministerial Advisory Group for mental health and the Equality Group, I will be lobbying along with other partners to ensure that we can develop a robust strategy which takes on the experiences of service users and carers.
Evidence from the last Count Me In Survey highlights over-representation and the extensive use of community treatment orders for black and minority ethnic patients and service users. As a society we cannot continue to tolerate this level of stigma and discrimination along with the mythology perpetuated by the media, psychiatrists, commissioners, the public and within our own diverse communities that black people, even with medication and limited access to talking therapies, are mad, bad and dangerous.
We should be recording the experiences of today’s black service users, carers, and professionals to leave a testimony for a future generation like Ann Pratt did in her pamphlet to remind us of the ongoing fight against racial inequality.
You can share your experiences by commenting on this blog or sending your story to Mind to use in their campaigning.
Black History Month is no panacea but it provides a positive contribution to self-esteem, confidence and resilience by giving a perspective on how black people have contributed to British and world history.
Patrick Vernon is chief executive of the Afiya Trust, one of the leading race equality health charities in the country. Among numerous other roles, Patrick is also a member of the Department of Health Equality Diversity Council, Ministerial Advisory Group for Mental Health, and chair of the Healthwatch Advisory Group.
Marcel Vige, Mind's Diverse Minds manager, will be replying to comments on Patrick's behalf.
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