Believe in yourself!
Fostering aspiration and mental wellbeing in young black men 


The majority of children from African Caribbean communities thrive and achieve in school and in life. However, for many years, national statistics have pointed to an over representation of black boys being excluded from school and a higher likelihood of black men being placed in secure mental health settings and being diagnosed with serious mental health difficulties. Yet high quality studies indicate that black boys appear less likely to present with symptoms of mental ill health than their peers up to the age of 11. So what goes wrong?

Discussions with young men provide vital insights for schools and other services to bring about change.

Lorraine Khan is an Associate at the Centre for Mental Health and the co-author (with a number of peer researchers) of the Centre’s 2017 report ‘Against the Odds’ about three community projects in Birmingham aiming to improve the resilience of young African Caribbean men. Lorraine shared with CWMT some of the findings from the report.

Background – the data
First, Lorraine stressed that the data we have in this country on Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) child mental health is very limited. Sample sizes have generally been small, preventing robust conclusions. However, our national Millennium Cohort Study oversampled BAME communities, allowing us to get a more accurate picture of the journeys of children and families.

Lorraine says: “Recent sweeps of this long-term UK study highlight that black boys are less likely to have a diagnosable mental health difficulty than their peers at the age of 11 (Gutman et al, 2015); but when we start looking at our national adult mental health survey, some really quite stark shifts take place. Black men as they move into adulthood are four times more likely to end up in mental health
services, are more likely to end up in highly controlling psychiatric units (usually with presentations such as schizophrenia) and there is a higher risk of suicide.”


“They only show the bad stuff, the media, to do with the young black community.”
Young man, Birmingham, Against The Odds

It’s not just men who are affected, African Caribbean women are also more likely to have mental health difficulties, such as depression and anxiety, as are South Asian women.


The transition from primary to secondary school

Based on the conversations Lorraine’s team had with young African Caribbean men in Birmingham, their experience of primary school was generally positive. So what happens?

A second phase of the Centre’s work in Birmingham is currently investigating further what goes on during the transition to secondary school and strategies to strengthen young men’s resilience and achievement. For young men, this transition is clearly a significant shift.

“Some young men don’t feel like real citizens. (People think) they must be up to something. It’s seen as negative. Many (…) internalise this and live out a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Peer mentor, Against The Odds

Lorraine explains that young men talked of feeling flooded and overwhelmed by negative stereotypes, perceptions and representations of themselves in the media which could undermine their self-belief and aspiration:

“Young men told us that trying to work out your identity in the context of a barrage of negative images is a real challenge.”

They also said that negative stereotypes could be further compounded if boys lacked exposure to positive and high achieving leaders or male role models in the media, in their family or in local communities. Lorraine says: “Some young men talked about the struggle of trying to become a man, develop a positive sense of self and achieve without access to successful role models or father figures. Trying to work out who you are as a man during teenage years against the backdrop of broader negative stereotypes is a big issue”.

“(Experiences of racism) have an impact. It feels like you’re never gonna be good enough and it makes you feel like you won’t
achieve a lot of things, and even things like getting a job is harder – you have to work that little bit harder to be like everyone else, and it’s not a very good start, it wears you down bit by bit…and that’s a big weight that you have to carry.”

Young man, Against the Odds

Once in secondary school, there are some stark statistics pointing to longstanding and persistent over-representation of young black boys being excluded. African Caribbean boys in particular are three times more likely to be excluded than other boys of their age.
Lorraine said: “However hard schools try to make inroads, if you look at the DfE data every year, it doesn’t change much.”

The erosion of wellbeing
Various risk factors can affect black boys’ wellbeing during these vital years. “First of all, young African Caribbean boys are more likely to come from families where there are higher levels of economic hardship,” says Lorraine, “and we know that there are links between experiences of poverty and poorer mental health.” Long term studies tracking wellbeing over time also suggest that it is the continual experience of daily discriminatory ‘micro-aggressions’ and racism which have a ‘weathering effect’ on the mental health and wellbeing of young men from black communities over time, potentially wearing down resilience.

Communicating belief
What strategies can schools employ to support young black boys’ achievement and wellbeing?

Lorraine gave us an example from one young man she spoke to, who is now at university: “He told me that he was seen as a problem by the school until one teacher approached him and said he needed to do something different, steering him towards drama.


“We have to get inside the crack between that negativity, and when boys start living up to what people expect… Say, ‘yeah ok I get it but why don’t you do something else, why don’t you do something creative, come here, act it out in a different way?’
Mentor, Against the Odds

“That shifted things around for him – something creative, much more engaging, the style of the teaching, the use of circle time – all things that made him believe in himself. Drama helped him develop from someone who was told he had ‘no talent for English’ to someone who loved writing scripts. He recalled being in his first play and loving being in the spotlight. Experiencing the feedback
from the audience was the beginning of him being able to believe in himself and feel positively validated. Until then, he had never felt that at secondary school.”

This example raised some interesting questions: was it the fact that someone believed in and cultivated his aspiration that helped this young man feel validated? Or the fact that someone took notice of him, or finding a way that the boy could communicate and excel in a way he hadn’t before? “I don’t think there’s a single thing that is a magic wand,” Lorraine says; “it’s a mix of all of them.”

Keeping children in mind, keeping communication channels open, fostering self-belief and an ambition to ‘be more than you think you can be’ – all these are certainly important. “Those conversations aren’t always grasped, particularly at secondary level,” Lorraine
says. “I think at primary level there’s more of a chance of it happening – that picking up and checking in with children. Opening up conversations – ‘it feels as though things are a bit tricky at the moment, what’s going on for you?’”

Movement and interaction
If boys don’t feel they are getting their sense of wellbeing and status through school achievement, there may be a risk during teenage years that they lose their way and seek other ways to express their masculinity. So do young men have ideas that schools could adopt to help boys fulfil their potential and maintain a healthy sense of wellbeing?

The project lead looked like us and talked like us…(he) was so passionate… he gives credit, raises standards, shows commitment…(he’s) empathetic to everyone. (He’s) challenging…
Young man, Against The Odds

Lorraine says: “There’s something about the importance of interactive activity, movement and building in ‘brain breaks’ to keep minds stimulated and engaged. Learning from our partner The Birmingham Repertory Company, we often start focus groups in Birmingham
with an ice breaker that is full of movement. It gets people’s minds really racing and engaged, and we tended to get really deep and considered answers to the questions we were exploring. They were the most productive focus groups we’ve done.”


Lorraine told us about a project where a community engagement organisation in Birmingham, called First Class Legacy, went into schools and worked for ten weeks with boys identified as struggling and at risk. “Activities were led by relatable and positive role models and community leaders who created a safe space, and used lots of circle time and interactive exercises, encouraging boys to explore who they were, and to develop social and emotional skills – persistence, empathy and perspective. Interactive activities helped boys better understand themselves, and to explore their qualities, aspirations, goals and their teachers’ perspectives.” Creativity plays a part too, not just in fostering unity and teamwork but as a coping skill in its own right. Lorraine told me: “What engaged these young men with the projects was often creative or music-based activities – writing songs, producing music in a recording studio.”


Resilience and role models

Taking an assets-based approach to black history, rather than a deficit-based approach, was also described as important by community partners and young men, as was recognising the importance, significance and power of community resilience in the face of adversity.

Working with partners in Birmingham, Lorraine says she was struck by the power for young men of the opportunities to ‘see it to be it’: contact with relatable role models who had ‘faced and got through the same problems’ and who had achieved. She told us about a school in London where the headmaster’s mission is to bring in people who have achieved in their career to challenge the stereotypes that often tend to flood young men from African Caribbean communities.

A sense of belonging
“A sense of belonging is pivotal to a child’s mental health,” Lorraine says, “and a sense of school belonging is critical in that transition to secondary school and has been proved in studies to be critical to academic achievement too. “If a child doesn’t feel able to talk to teachers, it’s a huge risk factor. It’s those children who we should be investing extra time in to try and develop a relationship, whether it’s with their teacher or another member of staff.”

“(Of community mentor), they like helped me and pushed me to do more stuff than I used to do, so in my school work and that.”
Young man, Against The Odds

Lorraine believes that peer mentoring can make a significant difference in keeping young people engaged with school in a positive way. She says: “From what the project leads and young people themselves told us, having someone who looks like you, talks like
you, is like you, who can encourage you and foster your talents, helps with that sense of school belonging. That kind of intermediary can work well with young people who might be beginning to lose their sense of connection with the school – and mentors can work hand in hand with school staff to help them understand where that young person is coming from and problem-solve what might help movement forward.”

What should teachers be aware of when that sense of belonging starts to disappear and there is risk of disengagement? Lorraine explains that their research shows that it is still possible to intervene if you can provide a credible alternative. “Even if young men have gone quite a long way along that path of getting into a negative peer group, it is still possible to help them go in a different direction – and that’s why peer mentoring is really important.

“One young man said the project he was working with was giving him some kind of focus – he knew what he wanted to do academically – but when he was out on the streets, he was under constant pressure to drift back into a negative peer group. There was a real ‘push and pull’ between what he wanted to do and breaking away from more negative role models.”

Collaboration should be extended to the young person’s family too. Lorraine says: “Many parents told us they contacted the Up My Street projects in Birmingham because they were worried about their son’s educational aspiration and achievement. Talking to the family, collaborative problem-solving that feels right for the family, is really important. I think we could do more of that.” Lorraine also
suggests schools could work more with young people to co-produce solutions.


Finally, Lorraine talks about the need for an advisory role that would help schools to find better ways forward. While she recognises that in the current economic climate this is unlikely to be possible, she describes the role she envisages: “Schools don’t have community advisers who can help them problem-solve and who can work arm-in-arm with them. For example, in the health sector in some locations we have Community Development Workers who work with services to try to make services more culturally competent and who make sure activity enhances outcomes for those from BAME communities. We need the same expertise working arm in arm with local schools.”

Fostering wellbeing in African Caribbean students – ten points to remember

Please bear these in mind if you work with young people – or pass them on to a teacher you know

1. Keep communication channels open with children
2. Persistently foster self-belief, ambition and aspiration in young men
3. Be alert to and invest additional support in those struggling with transitions
4. Be hypervigilant to and address daily discriminatory microaggressions and bullying
5. Use creativity to encourage aspiration and academic learning
6. Keep learning interactive, including icebreakers, brain breaks and movement
7. Ensure an asset-based approach to black history, emphasising black achievement and community resilience
8. ‘See it to be it’: expose young people to positive role models, achievers and leaders
9. Use peer mentors and community advisers
10. Collaborate with students and their families

Khan, L; Saini, G; Augustine, A; Palmer, K; Johnson, M; Donald; R (2017) Against the Odds: Evaluation of the Mind Birmingham Up My Street programme London: Centre for Mental Health Gutman, L., Joshi, H., Parsonage, M. and Schoon, I., 2015. Children of the new century. Mental health findings from the Millennium Cohort Study. London: Centre for Mental Health.

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