TW: Suicide, Abuse
(Interview edited for clarity and brevity)
For World Mental Health Day, we spoke to mental health advocate and TedX sensation, Sanisha Wynter, about being bi, Black, and having BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder), and asked for her tips on how to better be an ally to people with mental health issues all year round.
U: Thanks for joining us, Sanisha, we’re super excited to have you. I first came across you after seeing your TedX talk, Vulnerability Is My Superpower, where you talk about being a proud Black, bisexual woman with BPD. How did you decide that’s what you wanted to share for your talk?
I really wanted to think about the different communities that I’m a part of, and I wanted to amplify them in my talk. Growing up, I hadn’t had that experience or being able to see representation like myself on that national stage or really feel like I could envision myself in those sorts of positions as a public speaker.
I feel like I’d never seen or heard a TED talk that did that for people with multiple identities in that sense. So yeah, it definitely was sort of for me – and for the community as well. My story is I found race first because racism was the first thing I experienced as an oppression as a child. And you know, that was where I wanted to start with the TED talk and the community that I wanted to change as well as support.
U: It’s such big and personal stuff, and you did an amazing job of sharing your vulnerability in a relatable and touching way. Did you find writing it as natural as it sounded when you were speaking?
I remember the two weeks before I hadn’t even finished writing because I was just like, ‘I know I need to write something that speaks to me so I can always look back and feel proud of it, but I’m doing this for so many people: this is not just for me, I need to do myself and everyone in my community justice, and I want to make change with this.’
U: You definitely can’t tell it was so last minute! And it clearly reached and spoke to a lot of people just like you wanted it to. How did it feel when you realised so many people had watched it?
I’m not an influencer, I didn’t expect anyone to really see it outside of my community or Black networks. That’s one thing I have always known, that I can deliver a talk, but I didn’t think anyone would see it because I didn’t have the networks to share it. All I know how to do is use my voice. And then when I woke up and 17,000 people had seen it in the morning, I was like, ‘What is going on here?’”
I just felt very, very, very overwhelmed, but in a positive way.
Such a moment of pride to hear feedback from people within the community, that they needed to hear that or they can direct their parents to it or their family. This is my community. It’s not just them, everyone needed to hear my talk, but I think for a lot of people in the Black community, they finally felt heard.
U: You talk in the video about how you didn’t always feel heard at a young age, particularly with regard to being Black at school and how the kids and teachers treated you. Can you tell us a bit about that?
At first, school was great for me because there were so many different girls that were so similar to me. They were all either Black Caribbean or Black African. They just very much had a very similar sort of understanding of how I’d grown up. They had either lived with their grandparents as well or had huge family settings, and there was a lot of cultural understanding on that score.
But then we moved into a refuge within the outskirts of London when I was seven, and I remember not seeing any other Black person for ages. I didn’t have a very good relationship with teachers at that age. There was a lot of name-calling at this school like being told my skin was dirty. I remember asking my teacher, and her saying to me “We don’t see colour.” And that was a really difficult moment because I think it started to breed a distrust for me of people in power. I started to recognise that they would lie. I think that definitely harmed my identity even more.
U: I’m guessing coming to terms with your sexuality on top of that must have been complicated and difficult?
My family’s Jamaican, so we didn’t talk about anything different: you don’t talk about mental health, you don’t talk about ‘scandalous things’. Even the idea of a different type of relationship was not preached to you. And growing up in a girls’ school, all you hear is ‘lesbian’ or ‘that’s so gay’, and the language was weaponised against students, regardless of whether they were queer. It was just weaponised in a harmful way as a diss.
So I very much hid my sexual identity within school. One of my friends, she was that much more confident in her identity, but was definitely seen as ‘uncool’ within school. She was rejected from Black girls for ‘being too white’ – that’s a thing that’s often placed on us when you seem like you’re moving towards Western ideals: when you’re a goth and you’re Black, you’re ‘too white’. When you’re queer when you’re Black, you’re ‘too white’. It was harmful.
U: Even if your family didn’t discuss mental health openly, am I right in thinking it was a running theme in your childhood?
My nan has schizophrenia, and so I witnessed a lot of scary behaviours as a child. But I only found out about my family’s mental health issues through other appointments: I would attend my nan’s diabetes appointments, that’s how I found out she had schizophrenia, and everyone just skirted over the subject.
My mum had had me so young, I was unplanned, and I didn’t necessarily feel wanted by my dad, and so I had an estranged relationship with him. It was very difficult for me to see how I could grow outside of this bubble that I was born in, this chaotic bubble of just not feeling like I had a place in my life. When I was 6 or 7, my mum’s partner at the time was very abusive and growing up around that sort of behaviour really skewed my understanding of what relationships should be. I think my self-worth was really damaged at a very young age.
U: Is that when you got diagnosed with BPD? Or did that come later?
I was very suicidal from 15 onwards. I still managed to go to university, still managed to graduate, but I was having panic attacks and it got a lot worse. So I went on my mental health journey, got diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. It was difficult when I got diagnosed because the first thing you do is Google it, and you can internalise that sort of stuff. It takes a lot of work to actually understand why you got diagnosed with it, what you need to do to support yourself.
U: On top of the hard work you’ve had to do to come to terms with it yourself, I’m guessing you’ve had to tackle some resistance from the outside world as well. What difficulties or stereotypes have you come across for people with BPD or other mental health disorders?
We’re constantly being described as not being able to keep a job. Not being able to have friends, have relationships – which might be true at times, but it’s also untrue, because I think we care so much as a community or as people. I think we’ve got a higher level of empathy.
I really want to change the narrative of how BPD is seen within communities, as well as support the Black community and the queer community in general to be more considerate and supportive of people with mental health illnesses. The reason why I do what I do now is because I want to support more and more people with BPD to access the work environment and have healthy careers.
U: Have you found any spaces that just get it, and make you feel understood?
No, not with the multiple identities I bring to the table. In that sense, it’s very much support groups that I’ve met online, and we’ve managed to create a small sense of community as friends. But I don’t think there’s anything official. There are Black women’s mental health support groups, I’m part of queer mental health support groups, but not when it’s both together.
Sometimes it can be draining when you’re looking for support to have to overly explain.
I think for any community that unless you have the lived experience, it’s very difficult to understand the nuances.
U: When it comes to dating, how do you approach discussions around your BPD? Do you put it on the table straight away, or do you wait until you feel like you’ve got that level of trust?
There’s a whole book of Sanisha that somebody has to unravel and comprehend to even try to be in a relationship with me…! I think it really depends on how I trust somebody. I’m currently in the dating stage, so I can definitely articulate this from real lived experience. I don’t like to do it too early, because I feel like people do what I did when I was diagnosed and Google, and you always end up in really stigmatising places. I like them to get to know who they think I am, not the labels that society has placed on me because of what I’ve experienced.
U: So it’s about finding when the right time is to be vulnerable?
Mmm-hmm, yeah. Because I believe it is my superpower, and it definitely elevates me to a point of strength in being able to support others like me, or to amplify marginalised voices like myself. I see it as a gift.
Me being vulnerable to somebody is a gift I’m giving them – I’m giving you a chapter of my journey. That’s huge.
This life wasn’t easy to experience, and so for me to relive any point of trauma is a gift, whether it’s to educate you or to support you. I can’t just be vulnerable with every single person that starts messaging me on Hinge.
U: For your experiences, when people do show that vulnerability, whether it’s in dating or at work or at school, what advice have you got about how to support other people, not only on mental health on awareness days but all year round?
Validation. Validation is a huge thing – I think we forget how important praise is. You know, like with a child, you say, ‘Oh, well done you’, you praise for everything. I feel like when people decide to be trusting enough to share themselves, I don’t think there is enough validation. When you’re talking about mental health with somebody and a mental health illness, it can be very scary because you don’t know how you’re going to be accepted. You don’t put yourself in somebody else’s shoes as much as we should or should try to. I think there’s a complete lack of empathy, and I think it’s really important to show empathy. When you’ve heard something, then validate somebody’s struggle by saying, ‘OK, I hear that, that must be really horrible for you.’
I think it’s also important when somebody does share to share as well, because that’s how we grow. I really think there’s so much power in listening and learning and applying that learning as well, I think we hear so much about how different communities are harmed because of different microaggressions. But then we go away into our community groups and hear those microaggressions or hear those slurs and don’t do anything to challenge it. And so don’t just be a friend to my face, or friend to a community to somebody’s face.
U: Well, thank you so much for sharing so much personal and vulnerable stuff with us today, and in your TedX talk. Before we wrap up, given you’ve conquered so much and come to a place where you’re able to advocate for and celebrate all aspects of your identity, what do you think was the biggest stepping stone for you in finding that place of peace with your mental health?
I think it’s just important to know yourself. I spent so much time or so much of my life looking for validation outside of me, just waiting for validation that it was okay to exist. In your heart, nourish that identity, explore that identity, do whatever you need to do to become a place of acceptance. You’re no longer looking for this person to say you are enough, but you know that you are enough. It was a difficult journey, but really, really just take some time to connect with people who will help you get to that place. Connect to people who will be supportive of you, don’t feel like you have to come out, and wait until you’re ready.
This was the first year for Bi Visibility Day that my mum recognised it and she sent me a message. She saw herself waving a Pride flag for the first time this year, and that just means so much. But it’s taken years to get to this point.
So I think once you know in yourself who you are, nobody can take away that light inside of you.
To find out more about Borderline Personality Disorder or access support services, please visit Mind.
For funding for queer people of colour to access mental health support, visit the Black LGBTQIA+ Therapy Fund.
For a safe space to discuss mental health for queer people of colour, please visit QTIBIPoC Healing Space.
For more information about supporting bi mental health, please visit Papyrus.
She / Her | Instagram
Sanisha was interviewed by Maddie Jones