Framework for challenging conversations within the Black community

Andy Owusu

Andy Owusu is the content lead for the Black students’ Student Space package and is a PhD scholar at London South Bank University, consultant on students mental health in Higher Education, a researcher and an author.

This framework is to provide basic structures to having conversations about mental health with various groups of people and in different settings that a Black university student may come across.

Guideline for using the Framework

This framework provides a basic structure for having conversations about mental health within the Black community, particularly with Black university students in various settings. The following is a brief guide on how to use the framework.

Step 1: Acknowledge that discussing mental health can be uncomfortable and it's okay not to be an expert

Initiate the conversation with open-ended questions or offering an observation / experience with a proposition to explore it.

Step 2: Educate yourself and anticipate different responses

A positive response is always ideal but sometimes you may be met with a neutral or a negative response. Remember that people will have various attitudes and behaviours towards the topic of mental health, allow some grace for those who may be new to exploring these topics. Remember too that the reason for their discomfort may be their own previous experiences and not because they don’t see what you’re saying as important or valid.

Step 3: Respond appropriately to positive and negative outcomes

Sometimes conversations may not go your way in which case you will need to know ‘What to do if conversations get diverted’ . In some situations, you can have a successful and meaningful conversation about mental health in which case you will need to know What does acceptance look like? .

Here are some tips to keep in mind which may help you generate your own conversation starters and keep the dialogue going within the Black community:

Firstly, start by acknowledging and accepting that addressing this topic may feel uncomfortable, and it's okay not to be an expert on it. If it were a straightforward conversation, you would not be accessing this Student Space resource right now. Remember that the key to changing the narrative of mental health in the Black community is by making this dialogue easier for our community to simply engage in it.

Secondly, you are on the right track: continue to educate yourself on using healthy, respectful, and considerate person-centred language. This means prioritising the individual over their mental health challenge when discussing it. For instance, rather than saying " mental illness," it may be best to rephrase it as "people who live with a mental health difficulty."

Lastly, you can take charge of the narrative and stigma towards mental health by asking others with a mental health difficulty how you can support them and actively listen to their responses. When someone you care about is grappling with a mental health challenge, it can be isolating, and you may feel powerless to help. Remember, those who are struggling may often seek empathy and consideration more than solutions or venting opportunities. Although it may be extremely difficult to fully grasp their experience, making a genuine effort to understand their perspective and validate their feelings goes a long way.

Between individuals:

Conversation starters:

  • "Hey, I've noticed you've been quieter than usual. How are you feeling lately?"

  • "I'm here for you. Is there anything on your mind that you want to talk about?"

  • "I've noticed changes in your behaviour. Are you okay? I care about you."

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "Thank you for asking. I've been going through a tough time, and it means a lot that you noticed."

  • Neutral response: "I appreciate your concern. It's just been a bit challenging lately."

  • Negative response: "I'm not ready to talk about it yet, but I appreciate you checking in."

Conversation starters:

  • "I heard what you said, and it sounded like a stereotype. Can we talk about why that might be harmful?"

  • "I don't think that joke was appropriate. Let's be mindful of the language we use around mental health."

  • "I've experienced something similar, and it's not something to make light of. Let's be more considerate."

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "I didn't realise. Thanks for letting me know, and I'll be more mindful in the future."

  • Neutral response: "I didn't mean it that way, but I'll be careful with my words from now on."

  • Negative response: "It was just a joke. Lighten up." (This might require further discussion about the impact of such comments.)

Conversation Starters:

  • "I've been feeling anxious lately, and I wanted to talk to you about it. Can we have an open conversation?"

  • "I've been learning about mental health, and I think it's important for us to discuss it as a family. What are your thoughts?"

  • " I've been feeling really sad recently and noticed some negative changes in my mood, and I think it would be helpful for us to understand mental health better together."

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "I'm glad you're comfortable talking to us. Let's learn together and support each other."

  • Neutral response: "This is new to me, but I'm willing to listen and understand."

  • Negative response: "We don't talk about those things. Just focus on your studies." (This might require persistence in expressing the importance of your mental health. Or it may be that you find other forums to have this conversation. We can’t always change the people close to us.)

Conversation starters:

  • "I'm going through a challenging time, and it's impacting my academics. Can we discuss how I can manage my workload?"

  • "I've been struggling with my mental health, and I wanted to let you know in case it affects my performance. Is there support available?"

  • "I'm dealing with anxiety, and I'm wondering if we could talk about any accommodations that might help me in the course."

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "Thank you for reaching out. Let's work together to find solutions and support services."

  • Neutral response: "I appreciate your honesty. Let's explore the available resources to assist you."

  • Negative response: "We all go through tough times. Just try to manage your stress." (This might require further discussion about the need for support. Or you may wish to access other support at your university.)

Conversation starters:

  • "I want you to know that I'm here for you and that you can talk to me about anything. How are you feeling?"

  • "I value our friendship, and I want to make sure you feel supported. Is there anything specific you'd like to share or discuss regarding your experiences?"

  • "I've been learning more about LGBTQ+ issues, and I want to be an ally for you. How can I best support you?"

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Favourable response: "I appreciate your openness. It means a lot to me, and I feel comfortable sharing."

  • Neutral response: "Thanks for checking in. I haven't really talked about this much, but I appreciate your support."

  • Less favourable response: "I'm not ready to discuss it yet, but I appreciate your offer. I'll let you know when I'm comfortable."

Conversation starters:

  • "I value our connection, and I wanted to discuss something personal. Mental health has been on my mind, and I'd like to explore how our faith can intersect with mental well-being."

  • "I've been reflecting on the role of mental health in our spiritual journey. Can we have a conversation about how our faith community can support individuals facing mental health challenges?"

  • "I believe that mental health is an integral part of our overall well-being. I'd love to discuss how our faith community can address mental health openly and compassionately."

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "I appreciate your openness. Let's explore this together and see how we can integrate discussions on mental health into our faith community."

  • Neutral response: "This is an important topic. Let's discuss it further and explore how we can approach mental health within the context of our faith."

  • Negative response: "We don't really talk about mental health here. It's not something that concerns our community." (This might require gentle persistence and sharing the importance of addressing mental health.)

Conversation starters:

  • "I've been experiencing challenges with my mental health, and I think it's time to seek professional support. Can you guide me on how to start this process?"

  • "I've noticed changes in my mood and behaviour, and I believe talking to a mental health professional could be beneficial. What are the first steps I should take?"

  • "I've been feeling overwhelmed lately, and I'm considering therapy. How can we explore this option together?"

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "I appreciate your proactive approach to your mental health. Let's discuss your concerns, and I can help you find the right resources."

  • Neutral response: "I'm glad you're considering seeking support. Let's explore your feelings and determine the best course of action."

  • Negative response: "Are you sure it's necessary to see a professional? Can't you handle it on your own?" (This might require explaining the importance of seeking professional guidance.)

Group settings

Conversation starters:

  • "I'd like us to talk openly about mental health in our group. How can we create a safe and supportive space for everyone?"

  • "I've noticed that mental health is a significant issue among students. Can we brainstorm ways to support each other within our group?"

  • "I believe discussing mental health is crucial. How can we ensure everyone feels comfortable sharing their experiences and seeking help?"

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "I'm glad you brought this up. Let's establish some ground rules and resources for support."

  • Neutral response: "I never really thought about it, but I'm open to creating a more supportive environment."

  • Negative response: "Why are we talking about this? It's not that big of a deal." (This might require highlighting the importance of mental health and its impact on academic success.)

Conversation starters:

  • "I've been thinking about the teachings of our faith and how they might offer insights into mental well-being. Can we explore scriptures or teachings that relate to mental health?"

  • "I believe there's a strong connection between our spiritual practices and mental resilience. How can we integrate mental health awareness into our faith teachings?"

  • "Our faith emphasises compassion and support. How can we create an environment where individuals feel comfortable discussing mental health challenges without judgement?"

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "I appreciate your perspective. Let's delve into our faith teachings and see how they can guide us in supporting mental health within our community."

  • Neutral response: "Interesting point. Let's explore the scriptures and teachings together to find common ground on addressing mental health."

  • Negative response: "We focus on spiritual matters, not mental health. They're separate concerns." (This might require explaining the interconnectedness of mental health and spirituality.)

Conversation starters:

  • "I've personally faced challenges with my mental health, and I believe opening up about these experiences can help reduce stigma within our community. Can we discuss how personal stories can foster empathy?"

  • "Sharing our vulnerabilities can strengthen our sense of community. I'd like to discuss how we can create a space for individuals to talk about their mental health journeys without fear of judgement."

  • "I've witnessed others in our community struggling with mental health, and I think our faith community can play a crucial role in providing support. Can we explore ways to break the silence on mental health?"

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "Thank you for sharing. Your experiences are valuable, and I agree that openness can help create a more supportive environment. Let's consider how to incorporate this into our community."

  • Neutral response: "I hadn't thought about it that way. Let's explore the potential benefits of sharing personal stories and how it aligns with our faith principles."

  • Negative response: "Personal experiences with mental health might make others uncomfortable. It's better to focus on spiritual matters." (This might require explaining the healing power of shared experiences and the potential impact on reducing stigma.)

Conversation starters:

  • "I'd like to explore practical steps we can take as a faith community to support mental health, such as organising workshops or providing resources. What are your thoughts on this?"

  • "How can we ensure that individuals facing mental health challenges feel supported within our community? Are there existing programs or initiatives we can implement?"

  • "I believe our faith community can be a source of strength for those dealing with mental health issues. Can we discuss concrete actions we can take to foster a more inclusive and supportive environment?"

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "I appreciate your proactive approach. Let's brainstorm and implement initiatives that align with our faith values and support mental well-being."

  • Neutral response: "I hadn't considered this before. Let's explore practical steps together and see how we can integrate mental health support into our community."

  • Negative response: "We're not equipped to handle mental health matters here. People can seek professional help outside of the community." (This might require discussing the role of faith communities in offering emotional support and understanding the importance of a holistic approach.)

Conversation starters:

  • "I want to make sure I'm using the right language and pronouns for you. Can you share what feels most comfortable and affirming?"

  • "I've heard that using correct pronouns is essential. Can you educate me on the ones you prefer, so I can be more mindful?"

  • "I'm still learning about LGBTQ+ terms. If I ever say something that's not accurate or could be improved, please let me know. I want to learn and be respectful."

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "Thank you for asking. My pronouns are [pronouns], and I appreciate your effort to be respectful."

  • Neutral response: "I'm glad you're open to learning but I’d rather not have this conversation right now."

  • Negative response: "I do not feel comfortable discussing this topic with you, let's move on."

Conversation starters:

  • "I'm honoured that you felt comfortable sharing this with me. How can I support you during this time, and is there anything specific you'd like to talk about?"

  • "I want you to know that I support you no matter what. Is there anything you'd like to share about your coming out experience, or is there a way I can be there for you?"

  • "Coming out can be a personal journey. I'm here to listen and support you. Is there anything you want to discuss or ask?"

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "Thank you for being so supportive. It means a lot, and having you to talk to is comforting."

  • Neutral response: "I appreciate your offer. It's been a bit challenging, but knowing I have someone to talk to helps."

  • Negative response: "I'm not ready to discuss it much, but I'll reach out if I need support. Thanks for understanding."

Conversation starters:

  • "I've noticed some instances of homophobia or transphobia, and I want to address them. How can we work together to create a more inclusive environment?"

  • "It's essential to stand up against discrimination. Can we talk about ways we can be allies and promote inclusivity in our community?"

  • "I've been learning about LGBTQ+ rights, and I want to be part of positive change. Can we discuss ways to advocate for inclusivity and equality?"

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "I'm glad you're passionate about this. Let's brainstorm ways to address these issues and create positive change."

  • Neutral response: "I'm open to discussing this. It's important, and I appreciate your willingness to take action."

  • Negative response: "I prefer not to get involved in those discussions. It's not really my focus." (This might require further understanding and respect for individual comfort levels.)

Interactions during service engagement

Conversation starters:

  • "I'm interested in therapy. Can we discuss different types of therapy and how to determine which might be the best fit for me?"

  • "I've heard about various treatment approaches. Can you provide more information about the options available, and how we can decide on the most effective one for me?"

  • "I'm open to exploring different methods for managing my mental health. What are your thoughts on incorporating both therapy and potential medication?"

Expected responses may include comments similar to:
  • Positive response: "I'm glad you're open to exploring options. Let's discuss the different approaches, and I'll tailor a plan that suits your needs."

  • Neutral response: "Certainly, let's go over the available options and see what aligns with your preferences and goals."

  • Negative response: "I don't think you need therapy. It might be better to manage this on your own." (This might require a discussion on the benefits of professional support.)

Conversation starters:

  • "I'd like to discuss my cultural background and how it may impact my experience in therapy. Can we talk about how to integrate this into our sessions?"

  • "I respond better to a more collaborative approach. How can we ensure our sessions are interactive and tailored to my communication style?"

  • "I'm comfortable sharing some aspects of my life but not others. Can we establish boundaries and discuss how to navigate sensitive topics?"

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "Your preferences are important, and we can absolutely customise our sessions to meet your needs. Let's discuss how to make therapy more beneficial for you."

  • Neutral response: "I appreciate you sharing your preferences. Let's find a balance that respects your comfort level and promotes a positive therapeutic experience."

  • Negative response: "Therapy has a structure, and we need to follow it. Discussing specific preferences might hinder the process." (This might require a conversation about the importance of cultural competence and individualised care. Or this might mean you want to work with a different counsellor or therapist which is an option.)

Conversation starters:

  • "I've noticed some changes since starting therapy. How can we assess my progress, and when should we consider adjustments to the treatment plan?"

  • "I have concerns about certain aspects of our sessions. Can we discuss how to address them and ensure I'm getting the most out of therapy?"

  • "I'm experiencing new challenges. Can we revisit our treatment plan and see if any modifications are necessary to address these issues?"

Expected responses may include comments similar to:

  • Positive response: "Monitoring progress is crucial, and I'm glad you're proactive about it. Let's regularly check in and make adjustments as needed."

  • Neutral response: "Absolutely, we can assess your progress together and make adjustments as necessary. Your input is valuable."

  • Negative response: "You need to trust the process. Changes might not be necessary at this point." (This might require a conversation about the importance of collaborative decision-making or a change in therapist.)

Remember, these frameworks are flexible and can be adjusted based on specific situations and individual preferences. The goal is to create a culture of open communication, empathy, and support within the Black community. Additionally, your mental health professional is there to support you, and open communication is key to a successful therapeutic relationship. Feel free to express your needs, concerns, and preferences throughout your journey.

What to do if conversations get diverted ?

When engaging in this dialogue with your parents, peers, friends, or family, it's important to acknowledge that conversations may sometimes veer off course. For example, your parents might diverge from the main topic due to concerns, emotions, or simply misunderstanding. In such instances, gently redirecting the conversation back to the original purpose can be helpful. Start by expressing understanding and empathy towards their concerns, then gently guide the conversation back to the initial topic. You might say something like, "I appreciate your perspective and I hear your concern about my grades, and I want to make sure we address that. However, let's circle back to the main issue we were discussing, which is my mental health. It is harder to perform at my best academically when I am dealing with mental/ emotional difficulties. This would help me to ensure we cover everything thoroughly." By acknowledging their input while gently steering the conversation back on track, you create a respectful and constructive dialogue that fosters mutual understanding and collaboration. Remember, effective communication is a two-way street, and maintaining focus on the intended topic can lead to more productive outcomes for all involved.

However, we must add a disclaimer: a reminder that while we strive to provide effective strategies and suggestions, please be aware that not all recommendations may yield immediate results in initiating effective dialogue. We encourage you to revisit this page, revisit your conversations and try again, particularly if an initial attempt does not produce the desired outcome. Your perseverance and willingness to engage are key factors in achieving successful and meaningful conversation.

What does acceptance look like?

Acceptance involves acknowledging the resistance of others with compassion and understanding, rather than frustration or self-criticism. When facing resistance from parents. peers, friends or family during this conversation, it’s important to practise self-compassion by reminding ourselves that their reactions are not a reflection of our worth or efforts. A good example of compassionate self-talk might be: “It’s okay that they’re not ready to understand right now. I am doing my best, and their resistance doesn’t diminish my value or the importance of what I’m saying. I can take a step back, breathe, and try again later.” You may find this similar to the kind of language used in the affirmations articles, this is because this approach helps to maintain a positive and supportive inner dialogue, fostering resilience and patience as we navigate challenging conversations.

Page last reviewed: June 2024