Nicole Perryman says systemic racism may lead to poor mental health


By Lincoln DePradine

Nicole Perryman

Black families are put in “impossible situations’’ which, when combined with experiences of “racial trauma’’, can impact their mental wellness, according to Nicole Perryman, a college professor with professional training in psychology, counselling and social work.

“Anti-Black racism does create trauma,’’ said Perryman. “As a community, we’ve not always had the opportunity to be able to focus on mental health. We’ve focused on education, career, socializing and – very rarely – have we had conversation on mental health,’’ she added. “If you notice a friend or family member needing intervention, please absolutely reach out.’’

Perryman, a Trinidadian-Canadian, single mother and lecturer at Durham College, is also executive director of Ifarada Centre of Excellence. It’s a not-for-profit organization in Durham Region “designed to support holistic care, mental wellness and community enrichment’’.

 “Within the Black community, our identity, our cultural experiences, the evidence of systemic oppression, intergenerational experiences and trauma, can definitely impact and influence our wellness,’’ Perryman said in delivering the main address in part three of a Town of Ajax “Diversity XChange’’ speaker series presented by the Ajax Anti-Black Racism Task Force (AABRTF).

Challenges of racism, and other associated problems such as poverty, unemployment and criminalization, are institutionalized in Canada, Perryman said, while speaking on the topic, “Demystifying Mental Health’’.

“Systemic racism can lead to over-surveillance of Black people, which leads to over-criminalization, which leads to disconnection from their community and their home,’’ Perryman charged.

“Black people have contributed to the fabric and the foundation of this country, but they continue to experience negative outcomes. Anti-Black racism is embedded within Canadian institutions, its policies and practices; and, our governments have not done enough to address this inequity,’’ she added.

The shame and historical myths, stigmas and stereotypes linked to mental health – that it afflicts “weak’’ people or “caused by evil spirits’’ – should be dispelled, Perryman recommended.

“An important part of deconstructing mental health is understanding how systems can reinforce shame and disconnection from seeking help. These stigmas make it difficult for Black community members to access support when they need to,’’ said Perryman. “We need to accept that we have to spend time developing wellness in our lives…and maintaining an emotional balance. Showing loving kindness to yourself is incredibly important in demystifying mental health.’’

Perryman, 43, described mental wellness as “a balancing act’’ that requires resilience and “the ability to adapt and change in the midst of life’s difficulties and struggles’’, together with striving to reclaim Black identities and definitions.

She drew on her own experience to demonstrate the reclaiming of identity and the dispelling of shame.

“I am a Trini. I love soca, I love playing mas’. I think it started when I was a baby. For my father, the mas’ was his soul, his being and his culture and he passed it on to myself and my sisters. For many years, I used to feel ashamed of my love for soca; and, I remember being ashamed to talk to White people about Caribana,’’ Perryman said. “I don’t anymore. What I had to do was, I had to reclaim my identity and define my identity how I wanted to. By demystifying mental health, we’re also reclaiming identities, definitions and belief systems about ourselves.’’

Things like heightened anxiety; eating disorders; substance abuse; depression; schizophrenia; loss of energy; feelings of sadness or hopelessness; panic attacks; and suicidal thoughts and ideas are “symptoms of concern’’ connected to mental health; if they begin to disrupt and interrupt a person’s daily living, then intervention is needed’’, said Perryman.

 “Begin to document your thoughts, your feelings and experiences; make sure that you’re sharing these with your medical experts. I encourage you to speak with a psychotherapist, counsellor or social worker about the difficulties you may be experiencing. Finally, consider medication as a way of support if your symptoms are too high and they’re making it difficult for you to be able to function.’’

Maintaining good mental health also requires other inputs such as paying attention to nutrition and physical exercise, empowering the mind, creating “healthy social relationships’’, developing community ties, and having a spiritual grounding, Perryman said.

“Our ancestors held on to spirituality as a reason for living and found meaning within the struggles. Spirituality has its place in healing, in cultivating balance within our lives,’’ she said.  

“Relationships are really important because they can create stability, trust and reduce isolation and loneliness.’’