A powerful insight into the complexity of growing up Black and British, Maybe I Don’t Belong Here describes the trauma of mental breakdown and the road to recovery. There is also a passionate cry to examine the systems and prejudices that still influence this society.
In this gripping narrative, actor David Harewood explores the connection between racism and Black mental health. At the age of 23 he had a psychotic episode and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. He had to be physically restrained by six police officers and put under sedation in a locked hospital ward. It has taken him 30 years to process what was actually happening to him.
I met David Harewood about 25 years ago, when I was still a television journalist at the BBC. We discovered we had much in common. We are both from Birmingham, both from Caribbean families and had similar life experiences, including racism. It was only when he revealed he is a Birmingham City fan, whilst I support arch-rivals Aston Villa, that we politely agreed to differ.
Maybe I Don’t Belong Here asks searching questions. What was the root cause of his breakdown? Did his racial background lead to his confused sense of identity? How did Harewood not only restore his health, but become a highly successful actor? His career includes starring roles in the American TV drama series Homeland and the Hollywood film Supergirl.
Harewood’s experience exposes an issue which is still relevant today. Black people make up only about three per cent of the total British population, but account for eight per cent of deaths in custody. Black people are also four times more likely to be detained under The Mental Health Act than their white counterparts. As Harewood writes, “clearly there is something about living in Britain that is tough for black people”. According to organisations like the Mental Health Foundation there is a direct connection between racism and mental health.
Harewood describes a childhood growing up in Birmingham where he was at conflict between his Black and white identity. The medical notes from the psychiatric hospital read: “Patient believes he is two persons.” In my own life and career I can identify with that inner conflict. I was the first Black British university chancellor, the first Black British government special adviser, the first Black Conservative parliamentary candidate, in Cheltenham, and the first Black Conservative peer in British history. But each success of mine brought with it racist abuse and little support outside my immediate family.
Maybe I Don’t Belong Here is both harrowing and humorous. I have every sympathy for the mental trauma that Harewood has experienced. I have known what it feels like to be the victim of racism, multiple times in my life. Is it just possible that the very things which made David Harewood sensitive to doubts and conflicting emotions also gave him the inner capacity to become a critically acclaimed actor? In life, problems can be the pathway to our promotion.