On Friday, I spoke on the phone with medical student, journalist, and activist, Samara Linton. Linton is the editor of The Colour of Madness, an anthology of BME mental health being published by Stirling Publishing. We caught up on why she and associate editor, Rianna Walcott, decided to build a space for BME narratives of mental health to be recognized, the importance of storytelling, and where this incredible project will go next.
Blueprint: What is The Colour of Madness? Why did you decide to put it together and what gap do you see this work as filling?
Samara: The Colour of Madness is an anthology, so it’s a collection of stories, essays, poetry, and art submitted by Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BME) people who have had mental health problems. The reason it’s an anthology is because we don’t want to present a single BME experience and we want to show that there is more diversity in how we experience mental health.
In terms of why, Rianna and I drew on our own experiences of mental health problems and experiences of trying to interact with services. Our experiences were similar in terms of our identity as black women, but personally, because I am a medical student, I have seen the impact of mental health problems from a clinical perspective. I’ve seen how BME people are overrepresented as patients, and the gap between medical understanding and narratives and those of patients. We wanted to highlight and represent BME voices, understandings, and narratives.
Can you tell me more about the title? When you frame the connection between race and mental illness as the “colour of madness,” are you challenging the history of how madness has been defined?
The choice of title was a collective decision with a focus group of BME people with mental health experiences. There were a few options, people left comments, and it was agreed that this was the best title.
“Recently, there have been movements not simply to reclaim madness but remove the stigma attached to it and use it as an umbrella term for experiences of otherness”
“Colour” itself is a play on colour as non-white experience, and colour can also represent emotions – red for anger, blue for sadness. We are organizing people’s submissions around colour themes, so it is a two-way, double usage of the word “colour.”
“Madness” is a more conscious choice. It is a historically controversial word that has marginalized people and othered them. Recently, there have been movements not simply to reclaim madness but remove the stigma attached to it and use it as an umbrella term for experiences of otherness. It is an umbrella term, a collective term, to refer to labels and diagnoses people do not feel that they can relate to, that have been assigned to them, or if they don’t have a diagnosis, or are working towards or moving away from labels.
What is the power of storytelling, of this collective testimony?
The power of it is that it makes facts relatable. We can read out statistics, do big research, big data, and that’s really important, a central part of campaign and advocacy work. But in terms of making people act upon that knowledge, those facts need to be relatable. They need to see themselves and see people they care about in those facts. That is why testimony is quite powerful – there is not one dominant narrative. Otherwise, it is very white washed and very easy for middle class stories to dominate. When you have many testimonies, it is not possible for one testimony to dominate others.
It seems like this book is geared towards multiple audiences – BME and non-BME, academic and non-academic, people who deal with mental illness and those who do not. Can you tell me about who you would like your book to impact and what kind of work you hope it does with different groups of people?
First and foremost, this anthology is for BME people with mental health problems because it showcases their stories, it is a reflection of their experiences. Even if it accomplishes nothing else, it is giving voice to their stories, that would be an achievement.
Still, we know it will be read by all kinds of people with all kinds of experiences. We are very excited about that, and about bringing the stories of those who might be on the periphery of society to people who make decisions and have influence, and to people who can get to know their family and friends better. Rianna and I both agree that there is a huge policy potential for this, for public awareness and public discussions on mental health. There are so many narratives we hope everyone will relate to.
But first and foremost, it is about the people whose stories we are sharing, the people who are making themselves vulnerable.
What is the relevance of this anthology in the time of Prevent, when mental health issues are warning signs and counsellors can be informants against BME communities?
There has always been a lot of fear in the BME community about speaking about experiences, whether they are mental health, financial, or relationships. There is a fear of making yourself vulnerable and being taken advantage of. Especially if you are not in a society that is working for you and working on your behalf. Initiatives like this anthology means staring those who oppose us in the face.
“Initiatives like this anthology means staring those who oppose us in the face”
We know that you want us to be silent, be scared, essentially disappear into a corner. But we are saying no, we exist, we are a part of society as we are. We just want to be heard. So this is very powerful, but we know that the fear is real. It is one of the reasons we allow pieces to be published under a pseudonym – you don’t have to put a specific name on submissions and that removes some of the threat or risk that can be associated with it.
I’m interested in your choice of medium. Why these written stories, versus another format?
It’s partly because that is where our own experience lies. We work a lot with written stuff. I have editorial and journalism experience, and Rianna does project management, curriculum work. This is not always accessible to those outside the academic sphere, so we are making it mixed medium, and having cartoons and stories, but it is all visual. We are making it something that everyone can pick up and engage with.
Do you envision a follow-up to the book? What next?
There have been lots of submissions from outside the UK, from the US, from people in countries in South Asia, and West and South Africa. There is clearly a desire and interest for people to show their experiences. The Crowdfunding campaign had donations from all over the world. The next step is to make it more international. We are also thinking about the experiences of young people, of children and teenagers. For example, there was a recent study that was the first of its kind looking at the mental health of children. A lot of mental health problems start very young and set the foundation for how we deal with them. So we would like for discussions about child mental health to be inclusive of people of colour and other minorities.
How can people submit?
You can submit via our website. We are accepting submissions until the 18th of February. Details about specifications are on the website. You can submit as many pieces as you want and we will choose our favourite. We don’t want people to be limited by what counts as “mental health experiences”. The idea that if it’s not negative or sad then it doesn’t count is not true, we know mental health experiences can be good and bad, wonderful and tragic. Be brave, send it in. If you’re not sure, drop a line.
Submissions to The Colour of Madness are open until 11:59 p.m. on 18th February.