Black History Month: Five Black Women Improving Women’s Mental Health and Wellbeing
Three happy Black women smiling while lying down

For Black History Month 2022, we’re highlighting the work of Black women activists helping mental health outcomes for diverse groups.

27 October 2022

By Hannah Uguru

For Black History Month 2022, we’re highlighting the work of Black women active in the core communities we serve via the Women’s Hub. The Women’s Hub is a community wellbeing project that extends emotional support activities and services to women in Islington and surrounding boroughs outside of more traditional therapeutic or clinical settings. Through this scheme, all women can take part, but we prioritise resources for neurodivergent women, refugee & asylum seeking women, disabled women and Somali women. At the crossroads of each one of these groups sit Black women.

Here are five Black women making British history today through their wellbeing work across each demographic:

Neurodivergent women: Lauren-Rochelle Fernandez

Lauren-Rochelle Fernandez. Image courtesy of Lauren-Rochelle Fernandez.

Lauren-Rochelle Fernandez is changing this male-centred narrative around neurodiversity through the Mask Off campaign, which she founded in 2018 to highlight “the ‘invisible’ Black female perspective” around ADHD, autism and mental health. The campaign name relates to the psychological process of ‘masking’ experienced by many neurodivergent people, in which they suppress behaviour considered socially abnormal so as to assimilate into neurotypical culture and society. This practice is common in women and racially marginalised people due to a chronic lack of research on health outcomes among these demographics. Indeed, After being diagnosed with autism and ADHD at age 26, Lauren found it hard to access culturally sensitive support that reflected her needs as a Black British woman, stating, “I found a lack of representation, inclusion and culturally relevant support services available to me post-diagnosis.”

Two years later and Lauren found herself wrongly detained and sectioned under the mental health act amid a global #BlackLivesMatter movement; it was an experience that was anything but just, inclusive or supportive. Reflecting on this tumultuous time, Lauren comments she felt “misjudged, mistreated and misunderstood”. 

It’s under this lived reality that Mask Off calls for a full embrace of neurodivergent personalities through legislative action, social equity and public education on appropriate support for service users from historically disadvantaged groups, as well as their families and carers. In June of this year, Lauren spoke at the NHS ConfedExpo about her ADHD and autism journey as a Black British woman, offering an important resource for those wanting to stand in community with those like her. 

Refugee & asylum seeking women: Antoinette Mutabazi

Antoinette Mutabazi is a Rwandan-born refugee and survivor of 1994’s Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. She is one of 135,912 refugees now living in the UK (along with 83,489 asylum seekers and 3,968 stateless persons). Now settled in Harpenden, Antoinette speaks candidly and openly about her migration trauma in a bid to raise awareness about refugee and asylum seeker narratives. In October 2021, she shared her story with LADBible and, earlier this year, delivered her testimony to South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue at the UK Holocaust Memorial Day 2022 Ceremony.

Remembering her mother’s death, she shares her continued state of mourning, saying, “every day [I] griev[e] her death” as a means of keeping “the legacy she has left with us”. It’s a powerful moment of reflection which may resonate with other refugee and asylum seeking women who don’t have the language to express themselves. In turn, Antoinette is using her voice as a Black African refugee woman to help represent others with similar backgrounds. 

Community Navigator Rose Namabgo provides specialist support for refugee and asylum-seeking women. On the importance of this varied group of women to both their native and adoptive communities, she says, “Migrants, refugee and asylum seeking women can be agents of change who contribute socially and economically to their countries of origin, transit, and destination. In the process, they help to reshape narratives through the social and cultural capital they carry as essential workers, researchers and much more. This month, I implore all to celebrate these women because they are the backbone of society.” 

Disabled women: Jumoke Abdyllahi and Kym Oliver, AKA The Triple Cripples

Jumoke walks with the aid of a crutch as a result of experiencing poliomyelitis (polio) as a baby; Kym lives with multiple sclerosis and navigates life in a wheelchair. Together, they represent the diverse realities of Black British disabled women, and they use their platform to discuss the intersections of race, gender and disability in the UK and across the global Black diaspora. The two women are both accomplished writers, speakers and social activists whom you can catch regularly exploring topics such as dating, travel or emotional wellbeing via their joint YouTube channel, website, Twitter account and Instagram account.

With a goal of “eradicating the cultural taboos surrounding illness and disability within the Black community” in the UK and globally, the duo’s brazen name, The Triple Cripples, is a call to unashamedly address the reality of disability along with the myriad of illuminating stories that come with it. 

Historically, Black women and non-binary people, along with other people of colour, have functioned as an “invisible population within an invisible population”. Jumoke and Kym choose to place their lived experiences in the context of both everyday life and wider analytical conversations about society at large, thus normalising the out-and-proud existence of themselves and others alike.

Somali women: Dr Leyla Hussein OBE

Somali women can face unique challenges when navigating mental health and wellbeing in the UK that differ from other Black communities. Hinda Hashi, The Women’s Hub community navigator specialising in Somali women, gives further insight, saying, “The Somali community has been a part of this country for centuries and has faced different challenges to adapt to the environment. As a Black African and Muslim, taboos and stigmas around mental health have never been fully addressed, and they remain difficult to talk about within the community.”

Against this backdrop, Dr Leyla Hussein is creating space for open intra- and inter-community dialogues about mental health, with a focus on gender rights and reproductive health. As a Somali-British psychotherapist and activist, she is the founder of the Dahlia Project, a specialist service for women who have undergone FGM (female genital mutilation); co-founder of Daughters of Eve, a UK-based NGO working to protect girls and young women at risk of FGM; and Chief Executive of Hawa’s Haven, a collective of Somali female campaigners and community activists who aim to raise awareness violence against Somali women and girls. 

Leyla cites a need to shield her daughter from the harmful sexual violence she experienced as a main motivator for her work. Writing for The Guardian in 2016, she connects this to community wellbeing development, saying, “Girls also need spaces where they can express their true authentic selves without being judged or harmed.”