“I first started struggling with poor mental health when I went on my year abroad to Los Angeles,” says Rianna Walcott, recalling the moment that informed her later activism. “I vividly remember walking home from a work shift I had just done at a coffee shop and I started hyperventilating in the street. I was next to a set of bushes and even thought about hiding in them until it passed. When I got home, I just sobbed for ages and it was only later on that I realised it was a panic attack.”
When Walcott first spoke to her parents about her depression, they couldn’t fully comprehend it. “My parents wondered what I had to be sad about, which isn’t how depression works, but often, within black communities, mental health issues can feel like they're only for white and middle-class people,” she tells me. “We’ve since talked about it a lot more and they have a more healthy understanding of what depression and anxiety is. Since I started talking and campaigning, I’ve even managed to win them around to the benefits of antidepressants and therapy.”
For Walcott, now a researcher opening up conversations about mental health in BAME communities, dialogue is key. Although conversations around mental health are beginning to take place more frequently and honestly, the voices of black and brown people suffering with mental health issues are rarely heard. Which is why, when the 24-year-old researcher and activist spoke at an Edinburgh event in September last year, she touched on her experiences of being a black woman in the creative industry who struggles with her mental health.
“The panel and the audience were both predominantly white, and clearly fascinated by my perspective,” Walcott says. “Lots of people came up to me after I spoke to tell me how interesting they found the talk, including my future publisher, Tabby Stirling. She offered an opportunity for these perspectives to be expanded into an anthology.”
Walcott’s immediate thought was that this project needed to be led by a black or brown woman – although she herself lacked time to dedicate to the project. Alongside starting a PhD, she also co-founded an initiative called Project Myopia, which focuses on diversity within academia and decolonising the curriculum. As a result, she initially didn’t want to take on the role, so she contacted her old school friend, Samara Linton, a medical doctor who had already published academic papers and articles about black mental health. However, it didn’t take long for Walcott to join forces with Linton. Despite her busy academic schedule, Walcott quickly found herself being drawn into the work and the pair began building on ideas for the submission-based anthology, The Colour Of Madness, which was published this September by Stirling Publishing Ltd.
Filled with poignant and brutally honest poetry, literary essays and academic pieces, from a range of contributors, the book has already proved hugely successful. The fact that the anthology secured three print runs within its first month demonstrates the demand for a resource like this. According to the Mental Health Foundation, a review in 2015 found people from black ethnic-minority backgrounds have “a higher prevalence of psychosis compared with the white majority population”. Studies also show that PTSD is higher among black women – an association that, findings have shown, relates to “the higher levels of sexual assaults that they experience”. Despite these high levels, black women are less likely to report or seek help. Which is what makes Walcott and Linton’s work so crucial right now: black and brown people experience huge levels of trauma and, yet, these conversations are only just beginning to reach a wider platform.
“Samara and I spent a long time searching to see if there had been anything of its kind before, and are still stunned to say there isn’t,” Walcott says, as she considers the book’s achievements. “People have been desperate to have this conversation and, in fact, this whole experience has been so freeing and important to my own mental health.”
Although conversations around mental health are beginning to take place more frequently and honestly, the voices of black and brown people suffering with mental-health issues are rarely heard
The excitement around The Colour Of Madness was immediately clear online, and with it came a new hypervisibility that Walcott now had to navigate – including voicing her opinions publicly and potentially being trolled online for it, as seen with an interaction she had with Piers Morgan. She received a media request from ITV to appear on Good Morning Britain (GMB). “At first, I didn’t realise that it was GMB contacting me,” she says. “I’ve disconnected from Piers Morgan in a very deliberate way for years now, so at first I didn’t connect the dots.”
Walcott was asked to join a debate on the term “womxn” and its inclusivity, which she thought was strange as she had never expressed any specific opinions about the term in any of her work. “I started looking for a more appropriate black woman for the job, but soon it became apparent that this was in fact Piers Morgan’s onanistic celebration of his own self-importance,” she says.
Walcott decided that the best thing to do was for her to publicly reject the opportunity. “I wanted to express my disgust at how previous guests who I deeply admire, like Professor Kehinde Andrews, Munroe Bergdorf and Ash Sarkar, had been treated. I did this in the hope that it would encourage future guests to turn down the slot, too. It’s traumatic to put yourself through that. It’s traumatic to watch experts in these fields go head-to-head with people who have no lived experience, and haven’t deigned to research what they’re talking about. There are better platforms.”
Walcott’s tweet went viral – even provoking a response from Piers himself – which she swiftly shut down. And, yet, she found the response more positive that she was expecting. “Of course you had the standard set of Piers fans who came to cause ruckus, but Piers has so many enemies that for every nasty commenter, there were about 10 voices of reason to combat it. I honestly just put my phone on silent and went about my day.
“Ultimately, not going on the show has done more for my career than going on it ever would have, so thanks, Piers! It amplified lots of my projects, and I had a lot of private messages of support and thanks, including from one of the previous guests I had defended.”
After a hectic year of conceptualising, editing and promoting The Colour Of Madness, alongside working on her dissertation, Walcott finally has time to reflect on the work she and Linton have done and the conversations that have been sparked. She believes that dialogue about mental health within black and brown communities is not only getting easier to have, but it’s finally starting to happen on our terms.
“Just like with this GMB experience, I’m delighted to see people of colour talking about these things among ourselves,” she says. “We’re turning our backs on voyeuristic spaces, with people who have no vested interest in our success and health. Conversations about our health in our communities should happen within our communities because we are the experts here. That’s why I’m seeking to platform our voices and our work with this anthology – and if others can learn from our expertise, then all the better.”