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Meet the woman tackling mental health among black men

LEFT BEHIND: Natasha Cohen says that young
black men can feel forgotten about in the battle against mental health issues in the UK

TOO MANY black adolescent males are ending up in the mental health system – and Natasha Cohen has had enough of it.

Hence the psychiatric social worker’s recent launch of the Genuration Next Project; a hands-on intervention programme targeted at reaching the young black males before they become “embroiled in the system”.

After more than 20 years of working in mental health, Cohen, below, strongly believes that once they have been through “the revolving doors” of jail and/or institutionalisation, are suffering from depression, anxiety or schizophrenia and are on strong medication, then it’s too late. “All you can do at that stage is try to maintain them,” she says.

But Genuration Next is all about getting young boys back on track and preventing those who have not yet turned to anti-social behaviour, from doing so.

With its genesis in the community, Cohen is calling on all black professional and skilled men to get on board; to create opportunities for these boys through apprenticeship placements, mentoring, coaching, socialising with them or in some way showing them an al- ternative to deviant behaviour.

Her passion for this type of work started while she was pursuing studies in person-centred counselling and was a support worker with the African Caribbean Resource Centre in Northampton, an organisation which supported African Caribbeans with mental health issues.

“From then I became interested in mental health and supporting disadvantaged people with mental illness, particularly the African Caribbean community,” she explains.

Then in her 20s, that included attending meetings with them and being an advocate for those in her charge who could not advocate for themselves. Not to exclude women, but Cohen is convinced that the time has come for black men to step in and assist the youth, while playing their part in curtailing “the alarmingly high statistics”.

“Up to the age of 11, there is no signi cant difference between black boys and white boys presenting with mental health problems,” she says. “However, by the time a black boy reaches his teens the dynamics change, and he will very likely face social factors which his white counterparts would not.”

Citing documented research from a study conducted in Birmingham, the mother-of-one explained that young black males interviewed attributed their circumstances to varying problems. Among those listed was being misunderstood at school, being taught mainly by white teachers who did not understand the cultural differences and not having a male role model around.

Others found it dif cult to express themselves and were reluctant to ask for help in the classroom, fearing it would lead to bullying or be- ing viewed as unintelligent.

Added to that – in some cases – was the inability to tell their parents about what was happening at school, for fear of being seen as a failure or an underachiever, which often led to them ending up outside of the educational system.

There was also that segment which had little trust in persons in positions of authority and just as little regard for the way mainstream media portrayed young black males.

As a result, many of them found themselves bottling anger or anxiety, which later led to seeking an outlet in the wrong places – getting involved in gangs or portraying deviant behaviour in school and at home. She also hopes to carry her programme into the schools and be allowed to conduct mental health training.

Cohen is concerned that rather than investigate “the reasons behind the behaviour”, the current system is too quick to label these young black males as having psychiatric problems.

“If a child is seen as a trouble maker and an underachiever, the current education system is not going to take the time to find out what is going on...or how they can help that child to achieve,” she remarks.

In fact, black people are “four times more likely to end up in the mental health system,” she says, adding that she sees the “too-late syndrome” daily in her part-time work with 18-65 year old service users; many of whom have turned to drugs or violence.

“So I’m looking to recruit black adult males who have come through the system; who can show then that they can achieve positive outcomes.” She is not limiting the volunteers to specialists only, but is calling on any community member who has something to contribute; including those with technological expertise to contribute to website and IT based promotional materials.

The daughter of a British mother and a Barbadian father is also hopeful that over time, Genuration Next will enjoy “regular inclusion into community events like Black History Month”, and be invited into schools to make presentations.

She also hopes, that the programme will be embraced and community centres will open their doors, just as Ilford Sports Club has done. Despite government cuts and the closure of many community centres, she wants those that remain to become places where young black people can meet and be together in a positive way.

The programme will initially be run by volunteers and nanced through fundraising. To offer your assistance, you can contact Natasha at genurationnext@gmail.com.

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