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Newsnight's Kirsty Wark
"The research uncovers serious questions"
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Friday, 14 July, 2000, 23:33 GMT 00:33 UK
UK life blamed for ethnic schizophrenia
Play about schizophrenia in black people
Many black patients have no biological reason for mental illness
African-Caribbean people are six times more likely than whites to be diagnosed as schizophrenic, but research shows this is nothing to do with biology.

A study by the Institute of Psychiatry has found that poor social conditions are causing black people to develop the symptoms of mental illness.

The experience of black people in the UK almost drives them mad

Professor Robin Murray

The high rates of black people inside Britain's psychiatric system has concerned both the medical profession, and the black community for many years.

And the government's mental health czar admitted the mental health system is institutionally racist.

Questioned on BBC Two's Newsnight, National Director of Mental Health, Professor Louis Appleby, said: "If by that you mean that the system operates to the disadvantage of some racial groups, I have no doubt about that.

"But that is not to say that individuals working in the system are deliberately racist because there's quite a lot of concern - there's no complacency in the mental health service about this.

"People are very concerned and very aware that we do not provide a satisfactory service for ethnic minorities," he added.

Professor Robin Murray
Professor Robin Murray says genetic differences offer no explanation
There is a hugely disproportionate number of black men inside the hostels, hospitals and secure units of Britain's mental health care system.

Many have the symptoms of schizophrenia, which can include erratic behaviour and feelings of paranoia.

Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry investigated whether black people were somehow genetically more prone to schizophrenia.

The answer was no - they found rates among black people in the Caribbean were identical to the white population to the UK.

Biological reason

They also searched for some other biological reason, such as brain damage at birth, head injury or drug abuse.

But when they compared the backgrounds of black patients they were actually less likely to have suffered this kind of injury than white patients and were no more likely to be drug users.

In fact, although 75% of white patients with schizophrenia had some biological reason for their illness, in black patients it was only 25%.

Nobody has ever bothered to find out whether the diagnosis of schizophrenia is as valid in the African-Caribbean community as it is in the white community

Dr Kwame Mackenzie

Brain scans revealed that white patients were three times more likely to have something obviously wrong with their brain than black patients.

The researchers came to the conclusion that it was possible that the psychiatric profession may sometimes be misinterpreting the behaviour of black patients who are not mentally ill, but struggling to cope with social adversity.

Professor Robin Murray, from the Institute of Psychiatry, said: "It seems to be something in the social environment, something about being black in Britain.

"The experience of black people in the UK almost drives them mad."

Dr Kwame Mackenzie
Dr Kwame Mackenzie believes symptoms might be misinterpreted

Dr Kwame Mackenzie, of Haringey Healthcare Trust, said part of the problem might be that the diagnosis of schizophrenia has been based entirely on the experience of white people.

"The concept of schizophrenia was a concept that really was generated out of the white, European tradition.

"It is believed that you can use the same bunch of symptoms to diagnose schizophrenia in African-Caribbean people in the UK.

"But nobody has ever bothered to find out whether that is true, whether the diagnosis of schizophrenia is as valid in the African-Caribbean community as it is in the white community."

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