Ethnicity and power in the mental health system: experiences of white British and Black Caribbean people with psychosis

09 Nov 2020
Lawrence, V., McCombie, C., Nikolakopoulos, G., & Morgan, C.


Persistent inequalities exist in how individuals from minority ethnic groups access mental health care. A failure to investigate how these inequalities are experienced and what they mean to people with psychosis has privileged professional narratives and hindered our understanding of how they are sustained and what could be done to reduce them. The aim of this study was to investigate the long-term experience of living with psychosis and navigating mental health services within different ethnic groups.


Our approach was informed by work on narrative analysis and prioritised the meaning that mental health services held for participants. In-depth interviews with 17 black Caribbean, 15 white British, and 3 non-British white people with psychosis as part of AESOP-10, a 10 year follow up of an ethnically diverse cohort of individuals with first episode psychosis in the UK. Thematic narrative analysis was used to examine experiences at the personal level within and then across the individual accounts.


Service users shared many defining experiences and narratives frequently returned to individuals’ first contact with mental health services, first hospital admission, experience of impatient wards, and the meaning of medication and diagnosis in their lives. We found that experiences of powerlessness punctuated the journey through mental health services and this appeared to dominate the accounts of black Caribbean, and to a lesser extent, white British participants.

The findings reveal how negative expectations and experiences of mental health services are compounded over time, creating a vicious cycle of disempowerment and mistrust that manifests for many in resistance to – or at best passive acceptance of – intervention by mental health services. High levels of need, coupled with alienation from services, contributed to negative patterns of service use among black Caribbean participants. White participants recounted substantial, though fewer, experiences of disempowerment, and more instances of shared decision making that for some helped protect positive aspects of their lives.


Against a background of entrenched social and economic disempowerment, services were experienced as disempowering by many black Caribbean people, compounding and perpetuating a sense of alienation. Concerted efforts by services to more systematically target social needs and to share power through partnership working may reduce the mistrust that many with psychosis feel when entering services and in turn reduce persistent inequalities across ethnic groups.