Historically mental illness in the Black community has been a taboo subject.
Often shrugged off and seen as a sign of weakness in both men and women, there tends to be a lack of understanding regarding mental health amongst our friends and family, in a cultural and socio-economic context.
However, in recent times conversations around mental health are becoming common. With more light being shed on how to deal with it without ridicule. Organisations such as Black Thrive (a partnership for black wellbeing), Time to Change, and Mind (the mental care charity) all offer programmes and projects that support our community.
But the conversation is not just being left there, many of our creatives in music, theatre and film have begun to share our stories and experiences with mental health and one such person is actress, producer, and writer Annabel Grace who has recently addressed mental health in her film ‘In the silence‘.
In the Silence tells the story of a couple, young and in love, Maria and Eric who have the perfect relationship, or at least they did. When Eric returns from a military tour of Afghanistan, he’s not quite the man she fell in love with. Traumatised by his experience of war, Eric struggles to adapt to civilian life.
We caught up with Annabel to discuss her latest project …
Introduce yourself …
My name is Annabel Grace and I’m an actress, producer, and writer. I’m West London raised, mostly between West and North West. Mixed with some Jollof from Nigeria and English apple crumble.
In ‘In the Silence’ you are addressing mental health in the black community, what kind of conversations do you hope to spark?
Organic conversations where people feel safe to share their experiences or ask questions. A lot can be learned just from listening. The more organic conversations that are generated, the more awareness is being built.
How did working with director Ethosheia Hylton come about?
My friend Maia Watkins told me about her work, and I reached out to her. It was just so refreshing to have a conversation about the script and her work. Ethosheia also understood how important representation is and that we could creatively deliver a message. And on a personal note, I was excited to be working with a female black director.
Why was this story important for you to tell right now? There are many mental health problems, was there any particular reason for tackling PTSD?
My interest in PTSD stemmed from my friend’s story. He opened up about his traumatic battle with PTSD and shared stories of his friends who had come back with similar stories or worse. It touched me that he would share his struggle with me, and it got me thinking that we don’t know what someone is dealing with behind closed doors and this subject isn’t talked about enough. It’s a huge issue and in severe cases, there are disproportionally high numbers of men and women committing suicide.
With In the Silence, my co-writer and I wanted to tell a story that focused on the relationship dynamic and how both people are affected by the early symptoms of PTSD manifesting. Those lucky enough to have a support system of friends, family or a significant other shouldn’t be ignored either, as they can be affected as well. Often support networks are the first to face some of the symptoms. By telling our stories, we can start to change the narrative and hopefully encourage others who are experiencing similar issues.
Are there any works with similar messages which had a strong impact on you?
At the time no specific works influenced me. It was the research, the shocking statistics, and the discussions prior to and while writing the script. But now, a lot of work has come out that I need to catch up on and watch which is great!
Does your work as an actress influence your writing or vice versa?
Yes very much so, I am drawing from personal experiences and writing has become a way to channel my creative outlet.
Did you plan to take on the role of Maria during the writing stage?
Yes, kind of but we were more focused on the script at that stage.
Similar to Maria, many loved ones expect those they love to return from war unaltered. Do you feel Maria’s expectations of Eric were realistic considering, what he had experienced and had to adjust to a completely different way of life?
I don’t think Maria or any loved one can fully comprehend what Eric or their loved one has been through. In terms of this story, In The Silence, they had been living two very separate lives for a while, so there is a bit of disconnect between them, but Maria knows her man and she knows something is up. At the same time, Maria just wants everything to go back to normal, so it’s partly living in a daydream until the reality of the situation kicks in.
Is there still a stigma regarding mental health in the black community? If so how taboo and damaging do you feel this is to us?
Mental health isn’t seen as a priority. Stopping people from speaking out and brushing it under the rug, by not even addressing that it is an issue. Part of the solution is that we can equip ourselves with more knowledge, to ensure that as a community we are talking about how we can deal with our mental health. We need to be more aware, more supportive and realise that these are very common human experiences we can all learn from, instead of it being negative, we turn it into a lesson.
Traumatic experiences can happen to anyone, however, people in urban areas are far more likely to experience these events yet far less diagnosed. Do you think there’s a numbness/resilience embedded into the culture or is PTSD being ignored and going undiagnosed?
Speaking from my experience and the wider conversations that I’ve had, yes, there is numbness/resilience embedded which is this attitude to not say anything. So whilst everyone’s traumatic experiences are different, I do know that not talking about it doesn’t help. But the person also has to feel ready to do so, and we have to remember that everyone’s healing process is different.
I would say these issues are starting to be highlighted a lot more, but we have a long way to go with waking up and accepting that these things are happening around us. In regard to working-class areas, it is easier to be ignored or passed by, so people are more likely to feel they don’t matter or aren’t being represented within the conversation. In this situation, it’s often much harder to open up about your trauma. There is still a strong lack of trust towards services because of how black people have been mistreated. It would also be remiss to not mention the obvious that racism can be a factor.
Do you think the stigma around mental health in black culture is the same for both black men and black women?
Yes- I think it diminishes self-esteem for both black men and black women and how they are perceived.
The title is self-explanatory but why do you think silence is such a contributing factor in the development of PTSD?
Fear and misunderstanding pay a big part but I think it’s a combination of the person trying to come to terms with it first by themselves, and that silence from the person living with PTSD means that they end up internalising the problem. Then there are others who aren’t aware of what is happening and are not discussing the changes they may be observing, so the situation continues on in silence which could result in a bigger issue later.
What is next for you?
I have a couple of scripts in development which I’m excited about, and when the time comes I will be more than happy to share it with you!
Interview by Lisa George.
In the Silence is currently with various film festivals, updates can be found via social media page: In the Silence