How to have a conversation about mental health with your parent from a different culture

Author: Chimwemwe Chirwa

It’s World Mental Health Day today and we want to share with you my story of being a black person with a lifelong mental health condition. This a deeply personal story but one that needs to be told so others can feel free to talk about their mental health without stigma.

At 15 during Easter I went into a specialised mental health children’s home after being discharged from young person’s psychiatric inpatients unit. I was put in care because of the severity of my mental health and my parents felt unable to cope.

Lemn Sissay MBE wrote a captivating book ‘My Name Is Why’ about his childhood growing up in the care the system. I highly recommend giving it a read. I wish I had this book when I was in Care.

My dad particularly struggled with understanding what was ‘wrong’ with me. Being Malawian, my dad rarely heard of mental health diagnoses and it was often considered that you had witchcraft performed on you if you were suffering from bad mental health. I had a conversation with my dad about two months or so into care when I was diagnosed with an ‘emerging’ personality disorder. We were sitting in the living room waiting to be signed out for the day. My dad joked “So you’re Hannibal Lecter now”, and I laughed because I knew all my dad’s knowledge of mental illness clearly came from pop culture that often portrays it with a sinister lens. “No, I’m not” I replied, “would you still love me if I was Hannibal Lecter?”, he said yes and laughed.

Films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s/Hannibal and TV shows were the only point of reference for psychiatric hospitals to my dad. Pop Culture was the only thing that informed him about mental health but it was always portrayed in a negative light.

We headed off into the town centre for coffee and shopping afterwards. Sitting in the café I was mulling over what he had said, I felt truly that he would never understand what I was going through out of the context of what society has fed him in both Malawi and western pop culture. I knew this was my chance to have a conversation about how I feel as I was unable to talk to my parents often in inpatients, so I did “I know that you struggle to understand what I’m going through dad but all’s I really need is from you is your support” I grabbed my bag and slid over a generic pamphlets they give you to explain mental health diagnoses. He got his reading glasses out and started to look through them after what felt like forever but was only 5 mins or so of reading he replied

“I felt some of these things after my dad died, I didn’t realise you felt this way all the time. That must be horrible”.

It is, I said with a croak in my voice, we hugged so tightly afterwards and got ice cream despite it being freezing for the middle of spring. I finally felt that my dad truly understood me and ever since that conversation my mental health improved from having his support.


Having that first real conversation about mental health is difficult but it is especially challenging when your parent has a different cultural understanding than you.


‘Different communities understand and talk about mental health in different ways. In some communities, mental health problems are rarely spoken about and can be seen in a negative light. This can discourage people within the community from talking about their mental health and may be a barrier to engagement with health services’ – British Medical Journal (2016)


Me and my dad enjoying the rare sunshine in Kendal

I’m talking about my experience in the hope it will help other young PoC like myself open up the conversation about mental health to their families and friends. I’d been working up to that conversation for over a year with my dad, but having it changed his preconceptions of mental health and changed our relationship for the better and he was better equipped to help me than before. Black people are more likely to have more serious mental health condition, I was diagnosed with BPD at 18 and my dad made the effort to research into it to know how to help me. Having that knowledge of someone’s mental illness is critical to their recovery.

PoC are more likely to be at high risk of mental health problems that’s why it’s more important than ever to have this conversation with your parent, siblings, extended family and friends.


Having this conversation might even make your parents aware that they are suffering with their own mental health issues which is critical to early intervention:


Black Men’s mental health:

Men’s mental health matters to us and we urge you to have conversations with your brothers, nephews and uncles about theirs. Whilst the White Caucasian population experience the highest rates for suicidal thoughts, suicide rates are higher among young men of Black African, Black Caribbean origin, and among middle aged Black African, Black Caribbean and South Asian women than among their White British counterparts.

There’s a lot of black men running around with crazy trauma scars, and they should be going to therapy. They should be sitting down and talking to people. But they can’t. If you’ve got the armor of being a man, and the armor of being a black man, that hyper-masculine thing can make those scars deeper.” – Daniel Kaluuya


Racism X Mental Health:


In Cumbria, race-related hate crime has increased 41% between 2016 and 2019 and every day brings fresh evidence that our society is at a turning point.


Research suggests that experiencing racism can be very stressful and have a negative effect on overall health and mental health.


With it being found that those exposed to racism may be more likely to experience mental health problems such as psychosis and depression we want you to know you are not alone.


If you don’t know where to start with the conversation, or want to hear PoC talking about mental health have a look at these useful links:


5 ways to have a conversation about mental health


Have a conversation about mental health


Having a conversation about mental health in the workplace


The International Handbook of Black Community Mental Health


Black Lives Matter: Protesting, Policing & Mental Health


If you need any support or advise you can use these resources:


Working with young black men


Black Minds Matter UK

Mind UK


Papyrus Prevention of Young Suicide


If you are in an immediate crisis:


Samaritans. To talk about anything that is upsetting you, you can contact Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone), email or visit some branches in person. You can also call the Samaritans Welsh Language Line on 0808 164 0123 (7pm–11pm every day).


SANEline. If you’re experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else, you can call SANEline on 0300 304 7000 (4.30pm–10.30pm every day).


The Mix. If you’re under 25, you can call The Mix on 0808 808 4994 (Sunday-Friday 2pm–11pm), request support by email using this form on The Mix website or use their crisis text messenger service.


Papyrus HOPELINEUK. If you’re under 35 and struggling with suicidal feelings, or concerned about a young person who might be struggling, you can call Papyrus HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 4141 (weekdays 10am-10pm, weekends 2pm-10pm and bank holidays 2pm–10pm), email or text 07786 209 697.

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). If you identify as male, you can call the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) on 0800 58 58 58 (5pm–midnight every day) or use their webchat service.


Nightline. If you’re a student, you can look on the Nightline website to see if your university or college offers a night-time listening service. Nightline phone operators are all students too.


Switchboard. If you identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, you can call Switchboard on 0300 330 0630 (10am–10pm every day), email or use their webchat service. Phone operators all identify as LGBT+.


If you are a professional in a role providing support to young PoC experiencing mental health download this toolkit:


Time to Change, Lets end mental health discrimination