Mental Health

Staying Alive Through Brexit: Racism, Mental Health & Emotional Labour

On Brexit, for Black Girl Dangerous.

It’s the night of the EU referendum. I am three thousand, four hundred and fifty-nine miles from London, my home town, and I am scrolling. The UK is sleeping but New York is five hours behind and I am here, trying to pet the dog and have a nice time at a BBQ, while watching the votes get counted. I report the result of each area to my American friends like one of those text message services you didn’t sign up for, and we talk about it even though none of us know what it means. I text my mum to tell her what has happened while she was sleeping and in the morning she replies, “whatever happens, happens” which I momentarily mistake for apathy.

A few days later I am at New York PRIDE’s Dyke March celebration. The music is good, the weather is good, I look good in the photos, my friends are nice and I am the most comfortably gay I have ever been. This should be a good or at least average day but I realize I am uncomfortable. My eyes are darting, focusing on everything and nothing and my chest is getting tighter with every step, until it almost feels solid. I recognize this as the beginning of a panic attack and excuse myself. As I leave, an intuitive friend asks me how I feel about Brexit. On a quiet corner I cry and gasp and try not to piss myself. Brexit. I have never felt so far from Home.

I am still awake at 5am, the tightness in my chest now a watermelon. It is hard to breathe. A dear friend from London has called and I struggle to speak loud enough for her to hear me. I am searching for hope like lost keys, it’s here somewhere, I just had it. She tells me a story to try and cheer me up, a story in which all is not lost and London, in all its super-diverse glory, in all its tolerance, prospers. In this story, my friend witnesses a drunk English man in London tell a group of Eastern European women he does not know that he is so glad they are there. I tell her that is not a happy story.

And the unhappy stories keep coming.

“Haven’t you gone home yet?”


“Would you like a banana with that?”

I think about my mother as a child in 70s Britain, quiet, skinny, hairy, brilliant. The oldest of four, she was tasked with protecting both her immigrant parents and her younger siblings from the constant threat of physical and psychic white violence. I think about my grandmother who kept a bucket of water underneath her letter-box just in case a burning rag or a firework visited in the night. I think about my sister, my cousins, their brown skin, their Muslim names. I try to stop thinking. Eventually I fall asleep with my fists clenched.

The leave voters are not the problem. They are the product of hundreds of years of colonial divide and rule, most recently implemented via a vicious austerity program that has nothing to do with migration, and everything to do with keeping the elite rich. I am most fearful of the white middle class liberals who voted to stay, who think they are Good White People but are actually People With Power Who Never Listen Because They Don’t Have To. These are the people who see themselves as separate from the leave voters and the black and brown people being attacked on the street; distinct, commentators with so much to say. I have spent hours, days and years in conversation with people like this, discussing structural inequality in the UK, isolation, fetishization, why I had to escape—and still they seem to think racism started a week ago.

They are the people who really scare me, because after this recent spike of hate crime normalizes, and we are left with the constant, low-key, micro-aggressive, soul-destroying racism that has always characterized life in the UK for people of colour, they will forget. They will continue to talk over us, to tell us we are “moderate Muslims”, to get paid to write and speak about things they know absolutely nothing about and to doubt us every time we try to talk about racism. To truly consider what life as a black or brown person of colour might feel like takes work – hard work, a rupture in a free existence and then inevitably, culpability. I have yet to meet a white person prepared to do that work, to step into that vulnerability. There are cheese and crackers that need to be eaten after all.

We can talk to the leave voters all we want, and we can blame old people if it makes us feel good, but they are not the people in charge now or in the future. They did not create this and this does not serve them. I am lucky enough to have experienced higher education among the elite, the artistic and political leaders of tomorrow. They are scary. They think their white liberalism is ***Flawless, they pretend to listen but they do not hear a thing, they use our bodies and our stories, they put our faces on their websites and they pretend they can’t see us when we finally collapse, just like their daddies did. They put our heads on sticks and call it multiculturalism.

As the days continue, well-meaning Americans make conversation with me about Brexit. Every time, I feel a wave of sickness, pain in my chest and a scramble of thoughts, flashbacks, half-words, reveries. I hold my stomach and speak through long, measured breaths. Despite moving to New York on a scholarship to study the mental health effects of oppression, I am finding it so, so hard to admit to myself that a news story is making me feel like I’m dying so many times a day. I wish the white people telling me that I need to be gentle, that I should talk to those who are different from me, had any idea what it feels like to be this tired.

We will talk. Right after we have dragged the UK’s legacy of violence from under its ugly, expensive carpet, after we have learned it, taught it, remembered it, accepted it as an explanation for everything we see. We can talk after we have taught our children mental and physical self defense. We can talk after we have spoken to each other, about mental health, survival, and the anti-blackness we perpetuate within our own communities of colour, oppressing black people in a space they should be safe. We have lots to talk about. If only middle class white people would stop talking.

In 1980 my mum, a first generation Pakistani living in North London, won a writing competition aged 16, using the prompt, An Event of Importance to my Community. In it she writes:

Today it is unsafe for any Asian person to walk down the street without his colour, speech, or dress being made fun of. You, the readers, may think that I am exaggerating, but the truth of the matter is, that no-one has yet realized the seriousness of racial prejudice… I fear that by the time we grow up, we will be too full of bitterness simply to sit down and talk things over. If anything isn’t done, we are going to explode and you will explode with us.

We explode every day and we piece ourselves together again. We explode for our ancestors, when we don’t expect it, and then again when we remember. We explode every time our trust is abused, every time it becomes obvious no-one heard us, every time we have to retreat, thicken our walls that keep us locked in, angry, safe. We explode.

The Tools To Resuce Myself (aboatwithnoengine)

This was written for a series on The Politics of Mental Health being run by the brilliant Transformation section of Open Democracy.

My hair is falling out. Of course, the rogue hair on my chest is still there. Of course it is. But the hair on my head is falling out.

I find myself busy considering the potential impact of the hair loss on my identity. This is a sign that I am ok. I feel like I have an identity. The hair loss feels viscerally bad on many levels: the physical sensation of it dislodging from my scalp with such ease, with no fight, the political assault on my body as my form is altered in a way that is out of my control, because of pills prescribed to me when I was barely conscious. – Maybe it’s ironic, considering my passionate belief that women should be allowed to choose what they do with the hair on their bodies, my belief in its significance.

These are the thoughts that travel through my mind and out of my follicles.

It’s a sign that I am ok because a few months ago, when I wasn’t ok, I was trapped inside the badness of this feeling. There was no space for social analysis, or any sort of healthy interaction with the world. I would just sit, tugging my hair out of my head repeatedly, waiting for it to stop coming out, or I would fantasize compulsively about shaving it off and starting again. I would make up stories about all the bad things I had done to deserve this punishment.

I had lost my sense of self, the peace that comes with knowing who you are. I relied on external cues from friends, lovers, and doctors to navigate the world and I became them. I became my feelings, my moods. I became pleasure and pain. I lost all touch with my agency, even if from the outside it looked like I was doing whatever I wanted. I believed my thoughts were facts.

People became a stand-in for my core. Their love sustained me and I engulfed them. It’s hard to come to terms with even now, but what was happening to me was too big for us to handle or survive, let alone fix. I needed people who didn’t love me too, and the systems they have built.

With regard to hair loss, I was unable to step back and come to terms with it as a side effect of medication that may or may not have helped me to survive falling into a catatonic depression 16 months earlier, after which – following a series of manic and psychotic episodes – I was diagnosed with what they call bipolar disorder. It just hurt, like everything else.

It has taken a long time to relearn how to deal with emotions, to interact, to empathise, to reason, to consolidate the shit show inside my head with the jungle outside of it. The process is not over. I feel how I imagine it would feel to come out of a coma, or how Bradley Cooper with the long hair felt when he took that pill in Limitless: clumsy, overwhelmed, full of promise.

That has been one of the most frustrating things about recovering from a period of insanity. The punishing slowness of it. At one point showering was all I could hope for in a day. Indeed it was a triumph. I crawled to the bathroom once. (I have a degree you know).

But somehow, it was the speed itself that played a big part in the recovery. Eventually I realised that I couldn’t move faster than I was ready to. When I accepted that, it was actually almost relieving. I moved onto a shower, a meal, a walk – on a good day, maybe a session of texting and one Guardian article!

It took me a long time to accept the slowness because I was not used to moving at a pace dictated to me. I had to realise that I was dictating the pace.

Once I was able to listen to my body, it was incredibly comforting because its rhythm belonged to me, it was coming from within me, separate from the desperate push and pull of the rest of my life. The slowness wasn’t something to fight against, it was the fight.

There is no doubt that it was society that saved my life when it felt as though there was nothing inside me, when I was hollow, when my perception of reality was undoubtedly warped. Well, more warped than the average anyway, A mix of medication, mindfulness, therapy, technology and unconditional love got me to this point. But it was this feeling, this slow, steady pulse, from the inside out, that signalled the move from survival to recovery.

I say “recovery” as if I’ve “recovered”. As if I’m certain my bathroom-crawling days are over. But I don’t know that recovery is quite the right word. It’s too neat for something so very messy. What I mean by “recovery” is really the process that began when I stopped waiting to recover. When I realised it’s possible to transform trauma, rather than waiting for it to leave.

Waiting for an imagined future is no more healthy than mourning an imagined past. I had to work in the present, from the inside out. I had to stop the cycle of frantically grabbing for branches that couldn’t support my weight, feeling the assault every time one snapped, feeling the pain of that encounter reverberate through me, shattering my core even more; becoming that pain. I learned to sit still and listen.

That’s not as zen as it sounds, by the way. The process isn’t zen and neither is the desired outcome. When you sit still, everything that’s been troubling you is still there. Pain starts peeking from behind the curtains, an anger problem or two stuffed in the bedside table. But the fact you’ve turned around to face it means you’ve already won.

Just like today, when I got frustrated while I was writing this article, and threw my notebook across the room and cried. That was me winning. I promise. How awesome, to be crying for a normal reason, like stress and frustration. How great to know exactly what the problem is, and live it fully but not in fear that it will take over.

I find it hard to use the language of ‘transformation’ to describe the way I am learning to live with depression, anxiety, mania, psychosis… or the way I am learning not to have to live with them. My moment of transformation was when realised I was me all along. Does that make sense?

There have been a lot of ‘realisations’ in this article. Almost all of them can be traced back to the whispered words of someone who loves me, or a conversation I’ve had in a white-walled NHS building.

Humans cause the biggest transformations within each other, and within society. My recovery has been built, block-by-block, upon the support of people who love me, sometimes at the expense of their own health.

It was a person who held my hand in A&E as my life fell apart. It was a person who woke me up, made me packed lunches and escorted me to work, who gave me mouth to mouth until they couldn’t breathe anymore. It is a person who has given birth to me so many times.

Their role in my transformation is still too big for me to comprehend.

There is a unique sort of hope in the kindness of a stranger. Somehow, despite my catatonic state, despite barely recognising the people I loved, I remember feeling that a society with a system that cares the way the NHS does, is somewhere I could learn to live. That’s not to say my experience with the NHS was plain sailing. Most of the time it felt like we were on a ship in a raging storm, pulling ropes and seeing what would happen, sliding across the deck on our arses. But there was a ship, and there was a crew, and we were trying.

In moments where I felt I couldn’t live in a world as utterly fucked up as ours is, it was the humanity that I found in the kindness of strangers that was able to penetrate that fog that everybody else had become a part of, and keep that glimmer of self-awareness alive, that slowly became my identity again.

Suddenly my previous activism against this Government’s brutal agenda of cuts to services like the ones that delivered these strangers to me made even more sense. Since December 2012, when I was diagnosed in hospital, to now, the NHS has been a constant and unconditional support and somewhere between the system, the strangers and the loves of my life, I started ticking again. And this time I have the tools to rescue myself. I hope I’m a stranger to someone someday.

Campsfield House: Another Prison for the Innocent

As a student, I volunteered at Campsfield House Detention Center with lawyers from Bail for Immigration Detainees. I wrote this for the student newspaper, and later made a documentary about it which you can see here.

Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre is an imposing concrete building. Situated in Kidlington, just outside Oxford City, it is surrounded by electrified gates and rabbit-proof, 20-foot-high fences surmounted by barbed wire. The 216 men inside are victims of relentless UK legislation that is systematically stripping them of human rights, while hiding behind the facade of immigration control.

Campsfield House opened in 1993 and serves as a waiting room for persons who have been refused asylum in this country.  UK Border Control alleges that detention provides care for people while they wait to be deported or removed. Since its creation, however, the treatment of those inside Campsfield has led to numerous hunger strikes and suicide attempts – some successful.

Within 15 minutes of being inside Campsfield, after being photographed, fingerprinted and searched I am approached by an African man who lifts his shirt and takes off his shoes to show me a body which has been punctured many times. It is men like this who bear the scars and sometimes even the documents to prove that they are not safe in their homeland, and are still being dismissed as liars and criminals that pose a danger to British society. The Government plays a very manipulative game with these men; imprisoning them not only physically, but with inflammatory jargon which states that because a person made the mistake of coming to this country without the correct documents, or worked once they got here, they do not have the right to be listened to, or to be treated as human beings. I intend to explain what I have discovered since speaking to these men and those who have dedicated their lives to helping them.

The majority of the men in Campsfield and other detention centres have fled from persecution. Many are forced to travel to England without a passport, and come by the belief that the UK is a safe place for those in desperate need. The standard sentence for someone arriving in England without a passport or someone who is found to be working despite not being granted asylum or refugee status is 15 months. This is often not the case, however, and many men who have acknowledged their "crimes" and served their sentences find themselves incarcerated indefinitely.

‘Stateless’ is a term used to describe a person who has not been granted status in the UK and is also not recognised as a citizen of the country they have left, either through lack of documentation or for political reasons. Statelessness is a major reason for detention lasting increasingly long and it has devastating effects on the physical and mental well being of the afflicted. Essentially it means that people are subjected to a never-ending limbo, not knowing when they will be able to leave, where they will go, when they will see their families again or even if their families are managing to survive.

It costs the taxpayer on average, £1000 per person per week to detain these ‘foreign criminals’. Detention is a waste of money as well as being a waste of innocent life. Considering that the ‘crime’ most of these men have committed is that they have worked illegally, there is surely a cheaper more effective and less dehumanising way to deal with the problem at hand. Some detainees are allowed to work inside Campsfield. They are paid £5 for a 6 hour shift and the waiting list is huge, giving you an insight into how mind-numbing life at Campsfield is. Money which should be being spent on the men’s physical and mental needs isn’t, with it being commonplace for psychiatric reviews to be postponed countless times, until the detainee is moved to a different detention centre in a new city, where they must start from scratch again, building trust and relationships with people on the outside who are willing to help. This sets their chances back for weeks, sometimes months and hardly helps with the depression. This detention centre ethos of ‘if they get too needy, move them on’ demonstrates clearly the disregard for these peoples’ quality of life. Sickeningly it seems they have adopted the NHS scheme of shuffling equipment in order to combat the superbug so bacteria does not have the time to settle and flourish. Except these people are not bacteria and they are not hurting anybody.

Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) provides a light at the end of the tunnel for thousands of detainees. BID is an independent charity that exists to challenge immigration detention in the UK. They work with asylum seekers and migrants, in removal centers and prisons to secure their release from detention. This happens in the form of ‘bail applications’. If bail is granted to an individual, they are allowed to live outside of detention, having to report back to the Home Office and have their bail renewed regularly. However, they are not granted the right to work and live on food vouchers.  BID aids people in detention through the bail application process, helping them to understand the legal system and find legal representatives, though most represent themselves. They provide detainees with a life-line via their help in filling out bail related forms such as ‘Reasons for Leaving’, a paragraph sized box allocated to detainees as their only opportunity to appeal directly to the judge at the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. Where most will feel inclined to appeal on a humanitarian level in this space, it is BID’s job to help detainees recognise where their rights have been abused and use the space to clarify where the law finds itself in contravention of its own rules.

It is not uncommon for detainees to be refused bail 10 times in a row despite fresh evidence from charities such as Medical Justice who work to expose and challenge medical abuse in immigration detention and will support immigrant claims of torture in their homeland. I spoke with Gill Baden, who has worked for BID since the opening of the Oxford office in 2001. She is 73 and has dedicated much of her retirement to helping immigrants abused by our system. It quickly became clear to me that not only does she provide information and advice for detainees, she provides them with support, care and hope that they will find nowhere else. When I ask her how much longer she will work for BID she says, “I don’t know how much longer I can do it. It’s difficult seeing things being made so much harder for these people. It’s getting worse.” To see a woman with Gill’s strength and determination to make life better for others still disappointed after so much work was overwhelming and terrifying. Who will carry on fighting for these forgotten people? And where will they find such strength to do so?

Student Action for Refugees (STAR) have geared their campaign towards raising awareness about Campsfield and visit, regularly conducting drama and poetry workshops. Eleanor Mortimer, president of STAR said, “the idea of detention without a trial is a threat to our human rights, too. It’s too close to home. That’s why I’m so passionate about star, we need to fight for these people who are from our generation, clever people who understand politics, who understand justice and have fought for those things. That’s why they’re going mad. They’re so far from being allowed to reach their potential.” STAR is planning poster and street-theatre campaigns as well as a rally planned outside the Sheldonian on 26th February to raise awareness about Campsfield among students and the local community. Unfortunately, raising awareness about Campsfield is not the only objective as they are also campaigning against the proposed building of a new detention centre in Bicester which will be the largest one in Europe.

The Campaign to Close Campsfield holds a protest outside Campsfield on the last Saturday of every month. The mood at the last one was focused towards targeting the Government and reversing the proposed building of Oxford’s second Immigration Removal Centre. Bill MacKeith, a loyal supporter of Close Campsfield said, “you never win a battle unless you fight it – and this one can be won. We are fighting against the barbaric anti-asylum policies manifested by the UK Government”.  The protesters sang ‘If I had a Hammer’ with faith and passion as they have done for many months. They peered through the fences surrounding the imprisoned immigrants, shouting ‘freedom’ and ‘migration is not a crime, close Campsfield’. A call of ‘SOS’ echoed across the tarmac in reply.

As a privileged person, I feel a duty to be aware of those who haven’t had my luck. I have spent so many hours trying to understand and empathise with the lonely desperation felt by those who aren’t allowed the most basic human rights. Still, during my visit to Campsfield I was unprepared when sitting opposite someone who had endured so much and was displaying all of the symptoms of being abused at the hands of the UK Government. “No talking can cure my problem” he said with depressed agitation, “my problem is freedom. What have I done that’s so wrong? These people are wasting my life. I’d rather take it myself then let it be wasted any more”. All this, and only a 30 minute bus ride away from my room.

I wish Campsfield was as bad as it gets but it’s just the tip of the only ice-berg that doesn’t seem to be melting. In other places, children are detained under exactly the same conditions, causing unimaginable trauma. But Guantanamo is closing and there we have hope. There is no time to breathe a sigh of relief for we have our own dirty secrets lurking literally in our back garden. It is only our continued pressure and refusal to forget these people that will instigate change. It’s nothing radical, just the prospect of treating all humans with dignity regardless of where they were born. As one detainee puts it “we are not asking you to love us like your children but we are simply asking you to give us at least half the care you give your dogs.”

A little documentary I made with the BBC, inspired by my time at Campsfield