By Esther “Essie” Wambui
On Saturday November 17 in Toronto, CAfRIC International held the “Empower Black Families” event; in an effort to bridge the gap of information and access to mental health and Substance use services among black families.
Headlined “End Alcohol and Drug Use Devastation”, the talks and presentations were aimed at equipping black families to learn and take action.
CAfRIC founder and mental health and addiction clinician, Irene Njoroge, says that in her work she focuses on promoting barrier-free and accessible treatment for substance use disorders.
“But even with the establishment of walk-in addiction medicine clinics, within the GTA and across Ontario,” says Njoroge, “I see a very small percentage of black families accessing these services. Plus quite often, a number of those who come have had their treatment mandated either by law, their workplaces, or Child Welfare is involved.”
Being a black woman and an immigrant, Njoroge says she personally understands why such stigma can be a barrier. She experienced this stigma herself when her sister died of suicide as a result of mental illness and her brother died of complications from alcohol use. “I was an adult and a professional in Canada when they died, but the stigma, carried over from my childhood, still weighed on me. Throughout my childhood, I witnessed the pain, shame and guilt that my family experienced from the stigma of having a family member with a mental illness and an alcohol problem.” She recollects.
“Quite often, neighbours, friends, and even teachers made sarcastic comments or references of me and my family as being ‘possessed by the devil’. I grew up feeling that my family was not normal, and by association, I wasn’t normal either.” As a family, Njoroge admits they never talked about this stigma, each one of them doing their best to cope, even in very unhealthy ways. “I look at my family today, and there are painful reminders of the aftermath of that stigma.”
As a mental health and addiction clinician armed with this familial experience, Njoroge says she sought to understand the barriers that prevent black families from accessing services, particularly here in Canada.
“I spoke to members of my community and other black communities and heard anecdotal stories that shame and the fear of being stigmatized by family, friends, or the community they come from are some of the barriers that prevent people from seeking mental health or substance use support.”
Recent research findings also seem to support these stories. For instance a 2018 study titled “Mental Health Consultation Among Ontario’s Immigrant Populations” led by Dr. Farah Islam, a Toronto Epidemiologist and mental health advocate. The researchers found that compared to those born in Canada, adult immigrants had perceived barriers of access to mental health services, heavily relying on their family physicians for these services, compared to those born in Canada. Additionally, immigrants cited shame and fear of being stigmatized as barriers to accessing mental health support.
Furthermore, the federal Liberal government appears to have recognized the unique challenges that black families face in regard to mental health and addiction. This was demonstrated in their 2018 budget, committing $19 million over five years to develop research in support of more culturally focused mental health programs in the black community, and more support for youth at risk.
Addiction is not just bad behaviour
In a session titled “Why addiction is not just bad behaviour” and citing examples from her family experience, Njoroge explored the historical, biological, social and environmental factors that increase the risk of mental illness, substance use and high risk behaviours.
She also delved into how colonial history and past experiences of colonized peoples contribute to the perceptions that perpetuate shame and stigma around these issues. “All these factors are in turn connected to the systemic barriers in place within institutions – barriers that impede access to mental health and substance use treatment among African and Caribbean Blacks.”
Child welfare and domestic violence
Nancy Wangui and Burnadette Nwaubani, two social workers with extensive knowledge and experience in the areas of child welfare and domestic violence co-presented another session.
On child welfare, Wangui discussed factors that contribute to child welfare involvement and described what families can expect once such a file is opened. She also talked about the rights of parents and children while in the care of child welfare agencies and what support systems are in place for this process.
“It is important for families to know what constitutes child abuse and neglect, and so I explain it quoting Child and Family Services Act, the legislation that guides child welfare.” Her presentation also looked into what an investigation into child abuse and neglect entails, the outcome and legal mandate.
Wangui also clarified the meaning of the ‘duty to report,’ where everybody is obligated to report any suspected child abuse or neglect. She also explained what parents should do when they get that first call from child welfare.
In discussing domestic violence, Nwaubani examined what defines domestic violence, the various ways in which domestic violence manifests in families, its impact on child development, and the support available to families who experience it.
By imparting knowledge on how to identify risks, prevent occurrences, and access treatment for problematic alcohol and drug use, and in educating individuals how to advocate for themselves if dealing with child welfare or custody issues, raising a child with special needs or experiencing abuse or domestic violence, CAfRIC International is providing a much needed service to black families and the community at large.
Connect to CAfRIC https://www.facebook.com/CAfRIC-International.
Blessing Ogbu (Nurse Practitioner) – I just felt that the whole information was really relevant and informative. It was great. It’s a very important thing for immigrants to know how the system runs basically. I know people who have been here (Canada) a while but once they come here it’s very difficult for them to get into the new society because they are so busy trying to get a job, trying to settle down, and those with kids trying to settle their kids. They might not know where this information and resources are and they might never get to know until they get into trouble. So it is a timely information that should be given to different communities especially immigrant.
Joshua Kiama (youth participant) – I really enjoyed the talks and presentations as the topics covered are rarely discussed in the African/black community due to stigma and fear of judgment. As a youth, the topic on mental health and addiction really resonated with me. Irene spoke on the complexity of mental health, and how trauma is passed on though genes from generation to generation, and the significance of colonialism and slavery in inter-generational trauma. She spoke on the importance of parents understanding the real threats and challenges to black youth in society in order to take action. One highlight was black youth being targeted by predators into prostitution, escorting, and drug trafficking. A factor discussed was parents being too busy, resulting in less attention and time spent with children. This leaves youth vulnerable to predators. When youth fall through the cracks of society in this manner, it results in a cycle as the youth become parents, and the next generation of children have to deal with the burden of trauma from their parents’ experience. Her urge was for parents to communicate and build strong relationships with their children and be knowledgeable on the challenges African/black youth face.
Brian Gonsalves (Community Worker): I like that she broke the presentation into three parts, touching the issue of where it began. In terms of the mindset of people, in terms of addressing colonization, the effects on the mind as well as how people are conditioned to value or to not value their own culture, their own perspective, and their own intellectual discourse. I also like the fact of how she showed the biological piece seeing that she has training in that area to go through the way the brain works and try to understand what actually happens. I find that most people know more about their phones and technology than they do of their brain. That is an area that needs to be corrected. People need to understand how the brain works. How does the mind work? How do we come to decisions and what influences us? I think if people understand what is the struggle that they are in right now – understanding the history of racism, the history of colonization, and white supremacy ideology and how that impacts them; I think once they know that then they can have a standing, a footing by which they could now develop means of addressing those issues.
Dr. Samim Hasham (Clinical Pharmacist and mental health awareness champion): Irene gave a critical perspective or account of colonial psychiatry and its impact on biomedical psychiatry which often for immigrants, started at an early age through the school system. She candidly discussed the impact of colonial ideologies of western knowledge supremacy over our unique African knowledge – the impact of which still distresses us today. For African Canadians, the struggle for mental wellness is often a silent one shrouded in the misunderstandings within the community around what mental illness looks like and the barriers that prevent us from seeking help. Often people suffer from depression, anxiety and other disorders alone. This silence is amplified by health disparities and social determinants of health that impact the physical health of members of our communities. Race and racism add to black people’s vulnerability to mental health distress. It is well documented that the Black community is disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, community and interpersonal violence.
With a mission and commitment to foster equity and fairness for marginalized persons, families and communities, this past CAfRIC event was intended to create awareness about these barriers and provide black families with information to identify risk factors and promote the willingness to seek help and to access treatment.
You can connect to CAfRIC through: https://www.facebook.com/CAfRIC-International.
By Esther “Essie” Wambui ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
Gallery Photos courtesy Wanyoike.