Sisters of the Yam and (Re)politicising Mental Health with African Feminisms

Written by Michelle Udoh

Edited by Temitope Lasade-Anderson

Illustrated by F. Seck

I think of mental health as the world’s lingua franca. I hear it spoken in the kitchen when female relatives season their meat with salt, Maggi, and tales of patriarchal violence. Its cadences caress the mouth of my elders as they gather and recount harrowing memories of the Biafran War. My friends and I speak it quite fluently as well: we use it to gist and articulate the many pains and joys that come with adulthood. The fascination that I have with this language, one that entwines our psychosocial wellbeing with our lived realities, is the reason I chose to study Neuroscience for my undergraduate degree.

I started my degree with the enthusiasm you’d expect from a 19-year-old girl who loved science, people, and striving for grades her parents could boast of. I expected my lectures to be dynamic —to outline biological mechanisms while familiarising us with the factors that contribute to mental ill-health. I thought my seminars would breathe life into my lecture notes, stimulating discussions on both the clinical and societal implications of neuroscientific advancements.

I spent three years being taught to view mental illness as conditions that are simply caused by malfunctioning neurochemistry and genetics. And yes, there’s a possibility that 19-year-old me misread the syllabus. But I do think that the curriculum mirrors the widespread depoliticisation of mental health. From the Sewell Race Report that denied the existence of racism in the treatment and diagnosis of mental health conditions, to the therapists who fail to recognise how culture and class informs their clients’ perception of self, health, recovery.

My quest to gain a deeper understanding of mental health followed me all the way to my master’s degree, where I wrote my dissertation on Nigerian mental health policy and its implications on Nigerian women. During this process, I engaged with the theories of African feminist researchers and mental health practitioners, such as Jessica Horn and Taiwo Afuape. Underpinning the work of these individuals, and many like them, is a firm belief that hegemonic psychological discourse and practice is impeded by its apolitical and medicalised approach. For them mental health cannot be divorced from socio-economic and political realities. It is for this reason that mental health research and praxis of African feminists is rooted firmly in the concrete struggles of African women.

This sentiment is echoed in bell hooks’ Sisters Of The Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. A self-help book that reads as a comforting letter from a big sister, Sisters Of The Yam outlines the myriad struggles of Black women and offers strategies to aid growth and healing. Unlike many books in the genre, Sisters Of The Yam does not see mental ill-health as an individualised issue that has individualised solutions. Rather, hooks is intentional about naming the oppressive structures that “assault our capacity to experience well-being”. She draws links between a friend’s heightened feelings of stress anxiety to her experience of being the only Black woman at her job, and writes about white supremacy and the impact it has on Black people’s self-esteem.

In each chapter of the book, hooks invites us to (re)politicise mental health. To pick up on the ‘-isms’ that colour the cadences of the language we speak. When speaking about her support group, she writes: “While we focused on personal concerns, we linked those concerns to institutional issues and connected the two. No level of individual self-actualization alone can sustain the marginalized and oppressed”.

There are massive gaps in the curriculum today —people-sized ones. British academia has upheld the dichotomisation of science and humanities for decades, setting the stage for the age-old ‘STEM vs Humanities’ debate. But I think this division is a huge disservice, not only to students but society at large. What is the point of science if its practice is not embedded in the lived experiences of people? How can we implement health policies and practices without thinking about the effects on marginalised groups, who disproportionately live with these conditions? How can scientists work to improve health, when we’re not taught to consider the inaccessibility of some treatments and therapies?

As a student, I wanted to learn about people. Of course, I enjoyed learning about the various functions and parts of the brain, and the neuropathology of schizophrenia. But I also wanted to hear people’s stories; to listen closely to the way they spoke the language of mental health and understand why their dialects were different to mine.

For hooks, and the feminist mental health researchers on the African continent, there is a need to correctly identify all the factors that contribute to mental ill-health. Because it’s in this analysis that strategies lie. And it’s in those strategies that healing resides.

Michelle Udoh is a writer and social researcher, with a focus on racial and gender health disparities. Her writing centres themes of community, love and mental health, aiming to promote understanding and compassion. She tweets at: @michkeenah.

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