Changes: David Harewood
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Annie [00:00:03] Hello. I am Annie Macmanus. Welcome to Changes. We kicked off May with Deaf Awareness Week and the wonderful Rose Ayling-Ellis. Well, this week it is Mental Health Awareness Week and my guest on Changes is someone who has been really open about his mental health journey, specifically his experience with psychosis. It is actor, director and now author David Harewood. You may know David for his role as CIA counter-terrorism director, David Estes in Homeland. He's from Birmingham, born to parents who are originally from Barbados. In 1997, he was the first black actor to play Othello at the National Theatre in London. He's played Captain Poison opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, The Martian Manhunter in Supergirl, and a U.S. agent who flirts with Olivia Colman in The Night Manager. But all of that only happened after he gave up on his home country of England and went to America. It seems on the face of it, that David's career has been success after success. But if you've read or heard about David's recent memoir, Maybe I Don't Belong Here, you will know that it was very, very different behind the scenes. In the book, David details the racial abuse he suffered in his life as a child and as a working actor, and the terrifying, psychotic episodes that this racial abuse ultimately fuelled. He was sectioned twice under the Mental Health Act and has subsequently expanded on his experiences, hosting and producing a BAFTA nominated BBC documentary called David Harewood: My Psychosis and Me. In this episode, we talk about all of it in detail; the voices in his head, the things that led to that journey, how he managed to come out and assimilate into, you know, being a professional actor after going through these huge psychological upheavals, and of course, the racial abuse that he suffered growing up as a black British man in the UK. David story is raw, real and incredibly important to listen to. You're not going to forget this one. Enter the podcast, David Harewood.
Annie [00:02:16] So, the book is called, Maybe I Don't Belong Here, beautiful book. Tells a story about you and your life, your childhood, growing up in Birmingham and then going through a psychotic breakdown at the age of 23. Obviously, it zooms out on your whole career acting and journey through becoming a very successful actor as well. But why do you think the book and the documentary had this huge impact on people?
David [00:02:41] I think it- I mean that's a good point. Good question. I mean, I think partly they were amazed that someone at my level would reveal so much. But I think it's the frankness, the honesty, the openness that people really, I guess, were struck by. Myself and my agent, perhaps at one point thought we would be somewhat attacked by, you know, the right wing media. Anybody who says anything remotely critical of this country can leave themselves open to abuse and attack. But we've had nothing, which has been really extraordinary and it's been genuine, it's been honest, it's been open and it's been authentic. And as somebody who's been through the experience, I think it's difficult to attack someone who's actually been through the experience and is trying to talk honestly about those experience and the causes of those experience. So, I think I'm sort of yes, just in a better place to be able to talk about it.
Annie [00:03:37] Yeah. Okay. Well, I find it really interesting because we talk about so many different facets of change on this podcast. You know, all the different ways change can affect a human being. But there's one quote that I read from this amazing woman called Krista Tippett, who has this podcast called On Being which I love. She wrote a book called Becoming Wise, and it says that change always starts in the cracks. That was one thing that really struck me about your journey, was this idea of a crack in your own sense of self and these two different versions of yourself that you talk about in the book. Would you mind, David, telling me about that kind of separation in terms of your sense of self and how that came about?
David [00:04:18] Yeah, well, I mean, it's, you know, I guess it starts with that, you know, little black boy sort of playing in the street and thinking that he, you know, having watched the likes of Tommy Cooper and Benny Hill and Dick Emery and Morecambe and Wise, loving the programs my father watched. Loving, loving, watching the television and feeling English, feeling British, feeling like a little English boy and then having the old white guy outside my house at five, six years old, kind of leaning in and angrily telling me to get the fuck out of his country. And that really sort of shattered my perception of what I was. First of all, I didn't understand it. I was like, what does he mean, go back to where I come from? And it rattled around in my head and then I suddenly thought oh hell, yeah, maybe I, maybe I don't belong here. Maybe I'm not English. And that sort of then sat in my psyche, the idea that I wasn't English and, you know, whenever so- whenever anyone kind of glibly told me to go back to where I came from or go back home or, you know, you don't belong here. There was always this nugget in my brain that kept thinking, I'm not really from here. But I didn't really understand it. I didn't really understand what that meant. So, I think that was the schism. That was the first sort of crack and that sort of widened over my life. The more and more I assimilated into British culture, white friends, white girlfriends, listening to pop music, you know, white television culture, white popular culture, the more I assimilated into that. And then obviously going to RADA and and then coming out of RADA and once again, the world saying to me, you're black. When that really happened, the rejection from the very thing that I was seeking affirmation from. When that rejection came, I think that really hit me quite hard. I struggled to cope with what that rejection meant because as far as I was concerned, I was British, I was English, I didn't have any other, I didn't have an alternative to fall back on.
Annie [00:06:26] As far as you were concerned, you were an actor, but people kept calling you a black actor. So, it was this constant kind of pulling you back to what you looked like and the colour of your skin as opposed to your craft and your talents.
David [00:06:38] Yes, but also, I think pulling- and this is what I've only just discovered but you know, pulling me back to my blackness, my identity, which is a question that I hadn't really attended to as a kid. I don't think I had really answered those questions you know, in my own mind. I hadn't really settled on those questions of black, a black identity, because there wasn't really anything. It's difficult for kids these days to think of a world without the Beyonce's and the sort of, the black icons that there are now. There was, you know, in the sixties and seventies, there were no black icons to sort of pin your identity on. I guess I just hadn't really solidified that black identity. So, when my outer identity crumbled, I was completely, completely lost. When I was rejected by that white society, that white world, I was lost and I didn't have anything to hang my own sense of self upon. Does that make sense?
Annie [00:07:41] Yeah, it does. It really does. It really does.
[00:07:49] *short musical interlude*.
Annie [00:07:49] So, let's talk about your childhood change, and if you don't mind, let's get a little picture of what it was like growing up for you. It sounds like from your book that you had a really happy house as a young child.
David [00:08:00] Great house. You know, lots of laughter. As I say, my dad loved those old British comedy shows, sitcom shows, so- him and my mum had these great laughs. And so it was, it just seemed full of laughter. The house always seemed full of laughter, noise and playing with- well whether it was playing with my friends or playing with my brothers. So, there was a sense of innocence and joy. You know, there were elements of fear, you know, because, you know, people were much more vocal racially. So you'd walk down the, you know just walking to the shops, somebody would shout from a car. And so you'd sort of tense up and then it would be gone and you'd just forget it and just walk on. Or you'd get chased by skinheads, run away, lose them, get back into your normal life. So there was a sense of sort of fear. But then once that fear subsided, just busy getting on, being a kid and enjoying myself, riding my bike and playing with my friends. So it was a, it was a combination of real joy and innocence with moments of extreme fear, I think, as a kid.
Annie [00:09:03] And David, did you ever, as a child have a conversation with anyone about racism and what racism was? Kind of get some help in understanding this kind of element of fear that was so prevalent in your life?
David [00:09:15] No. You know, I think my mum tried to mention- mentioned it a few times, and I did try and talk about it with my dad, but he wouldn't talk about it. I think he felt very uncomfortable talking about it, probably because he'd experienced something like it himself coming from the Caribbean. And I've spoken to other friends, you know, born around the same time as me, who a lot of them have said that their Caribbean parents very rarely talked about racism- the racism that they experienced, because it's traumatising. It's deeply, deeply traumatising thing to talk about. So, our generation are better at talking to our kids and we're better at talking about our experiences, but they kept a lot of it to themselves. I guess as a consequence, we never really understood quite what was happening.
Annie [00:10:05] Yep. So then, talk us through your childhood change, please, David, about your parents divorcing.
David [00:10:12] Yeah, I guess that was probably the moment when sort of- because well my parents divorced because I mean, my dad had a breakdown himself and was very different when he recovered. I don't think he did recover, actually, my dad.
Annie [00:10:28] Right.
David [00:10:28] I think it was a very shattering experience for him and I think he felt quite shamed by it. Never spoke about his time in the institution. And it was only just the other day I was talking to my mum about it and she actually said that he was quite fearful that he would be taken back in if he did talk about it. I think he was quite afraid that he would be sectioned again. So, I think he tried to just keep a lid on his- how he felt about everything. Which explains a lot because he just never spoke about it.
Annie [00:11:01] And also might explain how he maybe never recovered because he wasn't able to-
David [00:11:06] Yeah, come to just terms with it I guess. Come to terms with it, discuss it, talk about it, live- you know, understand it, I think even. So, it became very difficult and he changed. I mean, a lot of people do change after a psychotic episode. It's a very, as I say, shattering experience. And some people are much more timid when they recover from it, they lose a lot of confidence. He sort of became quite belligerent and, you know, wouldn't accept that he was ever ill, wouldn't accept that there was anything wrong. Sort of, everybody was wrong, he wasn't. He was right. He was always right. And there was no- you know, he knew the best. And I think that became quite difficult to live with. So they they eventually divorced. And as I said, as a kid, I was always you know, it was a quite a joyous household and it was always joyous most around Christmas, The house would be full of food and mum would cook and presents and stuff. And so I always had this idea as a kid of Christmas being this time of joy and togetherness and, you know, going into the cupboard and there'd be cakes and food and biscuits and, you know, lots of lots of stuff. And I always remember after the divorce that was never the case because, you know, the carer, the primary carer, mum, was was not in the house and so the cupboards were a bit bare and erm. I think a lot, I don't know whether a lot of people who have had divorced parents find this but going to two houses on Christmas Day is bizarre. It's just bizarre.
Annie [00:12:39] David, how old were you?
David [00:12:41] I was 13 around that time. 12, 13. It's really funny because when I wrote that in my book, a friend of mine that I was really good friends with in school, and I sat next to in school, he emailed me and he said 'I had no idea that was going on, you never told us'. Never mentioned it to any of my friends, you know. But it was a sad time because that was- I guess that was the end of childhood.
Annie [00:13:06] Yeah. Of that innocence. And also, that is also the start of you really changing physically, physiologically, you know, as a teenager going through puberty. So you have all of this uncertainty in terms of who you are and who you're becoming physically, but then that's when it- kind of certainty at home really helps. So, I guess when that's pulled apart I can imagine it must have been very difficult.
David [00:13:28] Yeah, I know that you know, adolescence is quite a common time for kids to have breakdowns. A lot of, as you say, physiological changes, chemical changes in the brain, a lot of just generally changes, whether it's moving away from home, going to university, whether it's being around different people. So that's a- well there's a lot of changes going on around that time. And I guess, I guess because I was burying all these emotions and not understanding them, it's just like shoving everything in the cupboard and just hoping that the doors don't fly open, you know, and I think there was a certain sense of that. Of just putting more stuff in the cupboard, not talking about it. And I think eventually, that my breakdown happened, just everything was just coming out, and just coming out, and coming out.
Annie [00:14:09] Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you went to, you went to RADA, the most prestigious acting school in the UK. And it sounds like you had a really, like positive time there. Are your memories good of that time?
David [00:14:24] Oh, my God, yes. I mean, I loved it. I mean, I wasn't very at good school. I didn't pay that much attention in school. I didn't really take school seriously because I didn't really get school. I just enjoyed the camaraderie of being around my mates. That's what I love about actors, you know, and about acting is I love being in groups of people, with the crew and the other cast. I love it. I love that environment. I'm a people person like that. So I guess that was what I was finding at school, but I wasn't very academic and I just didn't get it. I think we all learn at different times, but at RADA I was like, oh, I understand it, this word is an adjective/ doing word. And then, you know, this is all about, you know, I loved the study of Shakespeare. I loved, you know when directors would sit down and we'd go through the script and we'd break scripts down and really understand English literature, understand what Shakespeare was doing when he was using alliteration and what he was doing when he was using these- 'i'll pour this pestilence into his ear'. So the, you know, just all this amazing imagery that was contained in Shakespeare, it just set my brain on fire. I loved it. And I was consumed with a love of literature, whether it was kind of Russian Dostoyevsky or whether it was Pushkin. I just loved it. I love, I loved, I suddenly fell in love with literature in a way that I had never really done before. And yeah, that was my sort of, my waking up. I think I wished that I'd paid more attention in school because I really enjoyed it, you know.
Annie [00:15:56] It was a teacher at school that saw the opportunity or the potential in you to act, right? There's a lovely story there.
David [00:16:04] Yes, my teacher. Well, that was before I left school, you know, I'd been in a few school plays and I was just a classroom clown. You know, I was a very mischievous, naughty boy who couldn't sit still. I just couldn't sit still. So I was always messing around, which was very annoying for the teachers, very annoying. But at the same time, I wasn't sort of violent or I wasn't disruptive or, you know, it was just being naughty. So, at the end of school one day I got a call to go in and speak to one of the teachers, and he said, 'what are you going to do when you leave, Harewood?'. And I was like, I said, 'I don't know, sir'. Because I'd been in the school library for weeks and months, going from A to Z through the school library, you know, aardvark keeper, archery, everything from A to just right the way through. Nothing! Absolutely nothing was ringing a bell. And he said, 'what are you gonna do?'. I said, 'I don't know, sir, I don't know'. And he said, look, we were talking in the staffroom and we think you should be an actor. Like it was just like a light bulb moment Annie, that sort of lit me up. I went, 'wow!'. And, you know, I didn't know how you did that, how you earned money, what it was all about. But it just lit me up and I completely was inspired. And from that, from the minute he s- I can still- as I say, I write in the book, if I listen closely, I can still hear him saying it. It's just, it was just the birth of the rest of my life, and erm-
Annie [00:17:41] Wow, isn't that amazing! Thank God he told you that.
David [00:17:44] Thank God.
Annie [00:17:45] Thank God he just didn't leave it as a conversation in the staff room.
David [00:17:48] Yeah, it literally- this house, everything that I am, I can trace back to that single moment. Amazing.
Annie [00:17:56] I mean, I'm sure you would have found your way to it, but it might have been a lot longer. And so lovely to be able to go and get into RADA and then have those three years of learning the craft. And interesting as well that you say that all of the literature and the kind of academic stuff that you weren't that interested in school, became alive through the prism of acting.
David [00:18:16] Yeah, totally, totally. And acting really, really set me alight. And the whole idea that you could move people, you could hold people. I think back in the day, you know there's the erm, what's his name, Frankie Howard, he'd do these rambling monologues to an audience and he would have them in the palm of his hand. And, you know, he was extremely funny. And you could hear the audience, like- just would make them laugh. And I was always, I always marvelled at that, that you could hold an audience's attention just with timing and talent and what you had to say. So, when I started to act, I loved that. I love the idea that people are listening here, people are paying attention. I can hold people's attention. The power of that. That's why I love of that, that's what I love about theatre, even more so than TV and film. When you're in the theatre, everyone sits together and is very primal. Very pri- everyone's listening to a story. That's why it sent me nuts that people- that colour became an issue. It's like what the fuck has colour got to do with this? We're all listening to stories. That's why It just sent me- one of the reasons why it sent me so mad. The nugget of it for me was just the idea that were all sitting together experiencing a story. And that's the magic of acting. That's the magic of theatre for me. The minute you started bringing in all these, 'you can't do that because you're this, you can't do that because you're that', they put boundaries on my world that hadn't previously been there. And that's when I started to unravel.
[00:19:45] *short musical interlude*
Annie [00:20:02] So, let's talk about that phase then, so I think the word you describe in the book is a series of bruising experiences coming out of Rada and then entering the professional world of acting. And a few- a couple of things happened that kind of started to trigger the unraveling, right?
David [00:20:20] Well, again, yes. You know, I guess I was very naive, you know, but I think we were the first generation of sort of trained drama school black actors. And again, the established critics weren't very kind to us. 'Of course, it's not really Romeo and Juliet and he's not really playing Romeo. And you can't really play Romeo because you're black. Romeo's not black, you're black. Romeo's not black. Why are you playing Romeo?' All these sort of things started politics and sort of barriers were suddenly being put in my way and I said the reviews were very personal about who I was and what I look like. And so I found myself suddenly sort of faced with this, the constrictions of people's perceptions. At school I could just put on a silly hat, put a northern accent on and I was from Yorkshire, and everybody laughed and I thought was really funny. But suddenly you do that on stage at the National and someone goes, 'well, of course there's no black people in Yorkshire. He doesn't really talk like that and the characters not really black'. And those things started to really get under my skin that I was sort of being dismissed because I'm not really playing Romeo. And sort of erm, it just really, just really started to undermine me. And some of the say, some of the things that was- the whole being dismissed was very painful. And reading about that in, in the reviews was extremely painful, so I had to learn not to read reviews because they were very personal. Very, very personal. 'He looks more like Mike Tyson than Romeo' and-
Annie [00:21:55] Oh, God, that one's just-
David [00:21:59] Horrendous, horrendous. So, yeah, I just had to sort of stop reading them.
Annie [00:22:04] Yeah. So when did you first start noticing that something wasn't right about how you were thinking? About your thoughts, basically?
David [00:22:14] Well, I was on stage in Derby at the Derby Playhouse. I was playing Sloane in Entertaining Mr Sloane, he was a very devious character, very dark character. But I remember reading a review and I hadn't really been reading reviews up to that point, but someone said to me, 'oh look we've got some great reviews, really great reviews, you really need to read them'. So, like a fool I did. I mean, a lot of them were great but then I came across, something was a letter in a- and it was in a black newspaper, local black newspaper which really was going after me saying, you know, I should be careful about my choice of job, and, you know, Mr. Harewood is not showing the black community in a good light. So, you know, you know, black people who go and see this play should demonstrate how much they object to Mr. Harewood's choices by walking out of the production. I thought, wow, that's deep. That was really deep. So then I felt like I was being rejected by not just white people, but also black people. So, and I remember a couple of nights after that, you know, I was doing this monologue, I've heard a kerfuffle in the audience, and I sort of looked out and it was a black couple sort of walking out. Noisily walking out. Which is what the newspaper had said that they should do. It happened- it kept happening throughout the production. It just kept happening more and more. And it was really unsettling me and then I started getting really angry about it and incorporating this anger into my performance. I'd also had another job, so it's hard to talk about, but should we say a more mature actress was sort of getting rather close, uncomfortably close to me and I just didn't know how to deal with that. So there was just so much going on that was just really making my world very uncomfortable. I wasn't enjoying my career at all. It was a combination of both things. This- the older actress that was sort of getting uncomfortably close to me, plus the sort of doubts about my, you know, being rejected not just from the white space, but also the black space now.
Annie [00:24:25] Yeah. Yeah.
David [00:24:27] All of it just combined to make me very, very, very unhappy. When that final job finished, I just came back to London and just caned it. I just started drinking and smoking. I just wanted to get high. I wanted to get out of my head. And one of the worst things you can do when you're unstable is to drink and smoke. I wasn't sleeping, I was spiralling. There's a real rush in your early days of psychosis, real rush of dopamine. And especially when you're not sleeping, it's actually rather exciting. And lots of patients talk about this mania that you have and it was exciting. You know, I was sort of erm, I knew I wasn't well, I knew I wasn't sleeping, but I had these crazy ideas and a coincidence would seem like an amazing, magical moment.
Annie [00:25:25] Yeah.
David [00:25:25] I thought I could control it, you know but- and many people do. Many people who live with psychosis live with these moments of mania, and then maybe they'll crash for a couple of weeks or a month and spend a month in bed. I knew I wasn't well, but I just ran away- it ran away with me.
Annie [00:25:41] And David, how did you know that you weren't well though? Was it a sense? Was there something that happened, that you were like, okay, this really makes me, this is not right?
David [00:25:49] Oh I had some really good friends who just kept appearing and erm-
Annie [00:25:54] Ok got you.
[00:25:54] I'd get out of bed, walk into my living room, and there'd be my schoolfriends, my best mates from RADA, all sitting in my lounge and I'd go 'oh, hey, guys!'. As if they'd just- as if they'd just popped round. And then I'd start chatting and laughing with them, and then I'd sort of black out. And the next thing I know, I'd be walking past Euston Station at 3 o'clock in the morning, I'd go, what am I doing here? I better go home, and then I'd walk home, next thing I know I'd black out, and then I'd be in Islington at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I'd have no idea what the hell I'm doing there so I'd head home. And then I'd walk in and my mates would be sitting there and I'd be like 'ah, hey guys!'. Same thing again. Just losing consciousness, in and out of lucidity, in and out of lucidity. And I knew something wasn't right because, you know, I'd wake up in the middle of the night sweating and hearing voices, and that's when things started to really get scary, when you're hearing voices completely independent of your mind and imagination. But like a loud, echoing voice in your head. Scary. Really, really scary.
Annie [00:26:59] Yeah. You describe it in the documentary as being clear as a bell. Just arriving in your head, like, indisputably real.
David [00:27:08] Absolutely real. And that's- that's again, that's a condition of psychosis, which it is an extraordinary condition because, you know, you do suffer hallucinations and they can be extraordinarily real, extraordinarily real. And I'm very lucky that I have a comedic, rather calm, kind nature, because I did absolutely everything this voice told me to do. And now if you, if you haven't got that kind of nature, that voice may tell you to go and jump off a bridge. That voice may tell you to go and kidnap somebody, hurt somebody, harm somebody. So, I was very, very lucky. I was very, very lucky. Very, very, very lucky.
Annie [00:27:56] So your voice was Martin Luther King and he told you to go and put on a suit in a clothes shop in Camden, right?
David [00:28:04] *laughs* I mean, it's laughable. But it's extraordinarily-
Annie [00:28:06] No, no, no, no. The way you describe it, it really isn't, so visceral, it makes total sense of what he said. Sorry, would you mind telling us what the voice of him said to you?
David [00:28:15] The voice of Martin Luther King appeared in my head and said, look, you know, he said, the minute- I mean this booming, American voice is in my head. And he's. And he said, look, you know, the minute I was shot and assassinated in Memphis, the moment I died and lost consciousness, the whole of reality became my dream and so now I'm speaking to you as the dreamer of the dream. You are now in my imagination. So what I need to do is close the link between good and evil and I have chosen several people around the world who tonight are going to become angels, and we're all going to take part in this cosmic battle of good and evil, and you have to go and sacrifice yourself. You're going to walk to Camden, that clothes shop that you know of, you're going to walk in, even though it's three o'clock in the morning, it's going to be open. He said it's very important you don't turn round- very, very expressly said, do not turn around. Go to the back of the store, you'll see a suit hanging up, put the suit on. He said as soon as you put the suit on, that's when you turn around. And he said, that's when the whole of reality will snap into my new reality and we'll get rid of evil. I was weeping in my bed, like sobbing and weeping, thinking that this is, this is all part of this elaborate sort of aethereal plan to battle evil in the world. It was just extraordinary. I got up and got ready and walked to Camden, and then I don't remember getting there but when I got there, obviously the fucking place was closed. And then I was really scared then, I was very scared, I didn't know who I was, where I was.
Annie [00:29:54] Shit.
David [00:29:54] I didn't know what was going on and erm yeah, it was a very scary night. But that was the last- that was the night before was sectioned. So that's probably at the height of my psychosis.
Annie [00:30:08] You were sectioned once and then you were, you were brought in again. It was your mother that really kind of nursed you through to recovery, is that right?
David [00:30:18] I was sectioned twice. Once in London, and then for a second time in Birmingham. And then nev- never, never really, there was no follow up. It was just my mum basically watching me like a hawk and-
Annie [00:30:31] Yeah this blew my mind! The lack of aftercare that you had.
David [00:30:34] Yeah it's crazy.
Annie [00:30:34] Oh, my God. So you're just brought in. You're given all these incredibly strong drugs and just told to go off and be okay with no explanation of what the hell just happened to you!
David [00:30:44] I had no idea. Also, again, as it's worth mentioning, I was massively overmedicated. And this is only something that I found out literally last year when I gave my medical records to a friend who's a clinical psychologist. She actually looked through my medical records and she said, 'I cannot believe the doses you were given'. She said 'you were literally given three times the legal limits of some of these drugs'. And again, that's, that's to do with fear, fear of a large black man wandering round the ward who's clearly disturbed. So let's just knock him out. And that's one of the things about the book that I'm really proud of is that it has cracked open this conversation in amongst the mental health practitioners. Now people are having that discussion, they're saying, well, hang on a minute, this is routinely done. So let's examine why we do it. And there has been conversations around why predominantly white staff over medicate black patients.
[00:31:47] *short musical interlude*
Annie [00:32:02] So, I want to talk about the documentary and everything you learnt upon doing that. But just in terms of getting to the point from you being 23 and sectioned and being, you know, really ill, to then being this incredibly successful actor, I mean, it's such a extreme journey that you've taken and without going into the granular, I suppose, like how did you get there? Like how do you feel like you were managed psychologically to be strong enough to get out of that and then become the actor that you are?
David [00:32:32] I don't really know. And you know, again, my therapist tells me, points to that as a testament to my resilience and says, you know, if ever you're in a jam, if ever I feel like I can't do something, if ever I feel a little bit, you know, nervous about going into a situation, I think about exactly what you just said. And I go, I've got myself through the most extraordinarily difficult situation and rebuilt my career. That tells me I've got the toolkit, the toolbox to be able to get through any situation. But I do think there was an element in that recovery, Annie, of me, once again, like I said to you, shoving everything back in the cupboard.
Annie [00:33:17] Okay.
David [00:33:18] And just closing the door. And just going, let me just get on with it. Let me just get on with my life.
Annie [00:33:24] Yeah.
David [00:33:25] You know and there's a certain experience that you learn through that process, of breaking down, of deconstructing, which is almost the same process as drama school. Drama school-.
Annie [00:33:35] Right.
David [00:33:36] You know, you go into drama school with an image of who you are and they kind of deconstruct you and then say, well, you can, maybe you'll like this. And I'm amazed at just how many people, particularly young black people, come out of drama school and have psychotic breakdowns. Because you are deconstructed and told to look at yourself in a slightly different way, and that's exactly what happened throughout my psychosis. But in a much more frightening and I guess brutal way. But having shoved everything in the cupboard, I then just sort of got on with my career and luckily I was reasonably successful, so I just sort of got on with the job. The documentary and the book has been my opportunity to open that cupboard. And it's been a difficult process the last couple of years, but I feel all the better for it now. Now, there's nothing in the cupboard that I haven't seen. Now I've had a chance to pull everything out. Look in all the drawers. There's nothing that scares me anymore. I'm sort of, I'm much more settled with who I am. So the process has led to a strengthening.
Annie [00:34:46] We learn so much, it feels like, alongside you when we're watching the documentary and one of the big things we learn is just the kind of cultural context around your own personal story. So, you realising that this was not just an isolated incident of you, this was an incident that was happening in huge numbers to young black people in Britain. Can you tell us a bit about what you learnt?
David [00:35:12] Black people are four times more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act than white people and ten times more likely to have a mental health issue than white people.
Annie [00:35:22] Right.
David [00:35:23] In this country, which I've found quite staggering.
Annie [00:35:25] It is staggering.
David [00:35:26] But then, as I say, I placed myself in the situation and I write very much about- and it's not meant to be critical, growing up in a white environment, in a white space, in a white culture where you are routinely othered. I mean, I find it incredible when I watch these debates on television where a black person will say, 'well, I find that racist' and lots of white people attack them and say, 'no it isn't'. And I think how the fuck do you know?!
Annie [00:35:53] You have no, absolutely no right to question anyone on that. Ever.
David [00:35:59] It just dri- but that's what drives you nuts. It's like I think-
Annie [00:36:03] Gaslighting. You're being gaslit!
David [00:36:07] Majorly gaslit. So, I'm living in a place that sort of denies my reality. Constantly denies my reality all the time. Constantly denies that there is an issue at play, refuses to acknowledge that issue, and if they do, is begrudgingly. Constantly battling that is enormously difficult for anybody and one of the things I've realised is that you have to be enormously resilient as a black person, to just survive. You have to be enormously resilient, mentally strong just to cope with it. There was a Jamaican psychiatrist who came to the UK and actually had his work rubbished. Had a very, very difficult time in the UK trying to get the psychiatric community to understand what he was talking about and left very bruised. But he came up with a- something called the Roast Breadfruit Syndrome. What he realised was that, black people taken out of their natural, their natural habitat from Africa and taken to major European cities, major white metropolises, tend to experience increased levels of mental ill health. So when you grow up in an environment where you are othered, but it's not your environment, what he found was in America, in Britain, there were huge elevations in the numbers of black people who were suffering from mental ill health. Way less than the Caribbean, even less in Africa. So that would tell you that in a majority brown climate, brown people experience less mental health problems.
Annie [00:37:49] Yeah. Yeah.
David [00:37:50] Because we are in in amongst our own. There's a very different power structure at play. It's when we are growing up in a in a predominantly white space where you're othered, where you have to deal with these constant barbs, constant rejections, constant death by a thousand cuts. That's when it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain mental health. But again, that's the other thing that I'm very pleased about with the book, is even though it's a taboo subject previously a taboo subject, it has got people talking about black mental health.
Annie [00:38:23] Yeah.
David [00:38:24] You know, I get all these young people coming up to me saying now, 'oh, thank you for doing that'. You know, thank you for broaching that because I feel a bit anxious or sometimes some people feel a bit, you know, I'm struggling.
Annie [00:38:35] Yeah.
David [00:38:36] And, you know, I don't know who to turn to. I don't know what to do, so, I'm really glad that the subject's been broached.
Annie [00:38:43] Yeah, it's wonderful. One of the people you speak to, brilliant woman, she calls it the everyday struggle. So just this, this kind of- a whole extra layer of stress that you have to go through being black in the UK just in terms of, you know, what you're saying, in terms of being othered. But I'm interested, David, in your experiences of America then, because with your biggest change in adulthood, you talk about getting the part of David Estes in Homeland. And just your comparisons from America to the UK in terms of how they treat people of colour and also just how much more forward the conversation is in America.
David [00:39:18] Yeah, I mean, look, there's a hell of a lot of problems there as well.
Annie [00:39:21] Sure.
David [00:39:22] I'm not sugarcoating it. But, I think the conversation on race is much more advanced.
Annie [00:39:27] That's it.
David [00:39:28] Over there, and you have these enormous black institutions whether it's the black church, or whether it's black colleges. You have a bona fide black community there, which is not just working class. You've got a black middle class, you've even got a black upper class. So there's success. There's advancement there in the American culture. I feel very visible there. I feel much more visible. You know, you turn your TV on and you'll see authoritative, central, leading black figures, you even see a black president. You see people with power. That's not quite the case here. I think I did a documentary a couple of years ago, Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister, it was called, I think. And it just took you through the steps that one would- if a black person were to become prime minister, the seven steps that they would have to take in order to become prime minister. And they're all really difficult. First of all, I think it was something like half, like 60% of black children in this country are born into poverty.
Annie [00:40:28] Yeah.
David [00:40:30] By the time you're five, again, mainly predominantly white households, middle class parents, they grow up around books and people are used to talking and conversation. Then they go to very good fee paying schools. Which very few black people can access. From those fee paying schools they go to top rated universities. Then they go on to get, you know, connected jobs in the higher echelons of those. And those routes to the top are very exclusive. And because of the class system here that we have and the privileged system that we have here, then those systems tend to exclude people of colour, purely on a sometimes just purely on an economic basis.
Annie [00:41:11] Yeah.
David [00:41:11] But it's just very difficult for us to access those worlds. So it's very difficult for us to climb the ladder here, very difficult for us to get into those rooms that people in America are just in all the time, because it's much more of a meritocracy over there. From Homeland, you know, I'm playing an authoritative central role, head of the CIA. If I was to be cast as the head of MI6, somebody at the Daily Mail would go, 'well, of course there's not really any black people at MI6'. There'd be a huge debate about it on Channel five, on Radio five. 'Oh, there's no black- there's no real black spies in England. He couldn't play James Bond because there's no- James Bond's not really black'. There'd be this ridiculous debate about it. Whereas in America they just don't care. They will, you know, if you can see it, you can be it. There are more reasons to do it in America rather than here there are so many reasons why you shouldn't do it or that you can't do it.
Annie [00:42:03] Yeah.
David [00:42:04] Or they look for those reasons why you can't do it in this country so-
Annie [00:42:06] And it's such a shame. It's such a shame. There's so many black actors who've had to do what you've done, which is to move away in order to get a bigger breadth of parts and more opportunities. David, we had this amazing woman on this podcast a few weeks ago, called Emma Dabiri, who's an Irish academic, and she wrote the book, What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, which was a really big piece of academia in the Black Lives Matter movement. But she talked really interestingly about, there's a whole new generation of black Irish and she was comparing the black Irish to the black English people, and she was saying that what she has discovered is that black Irish people seem to be very, very proud of their Irishness. They are embracing the Irish language, they're doing Irish dancing, you know, they're doing like rap music, but they're rapping in Irish. And there's a kind of pride in being able to call themselves Irish and Black. But she hadn't seen that in English people of colour in that kind of, maybe British, but not the word English. And I was interested in what you thought of that?
David [00:43:08] I mean, look, the first chapter of my book is, There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, and that was drilled into me as a kid that you do not belong. Our Minister of Equality is Kemi Badenoch, who refuses to believe in systemic racism. So there is a certain type of black person who assimilates to a point where they almost aren't black. Where they sort of, you know, kind of wrap themselves in the Union Jack and wrap themselves in the English identity, but somehow they appear inauthentic. Whereas, you've got the other side of British people who embrace their blackness, and embracing their blackness, it almost seems to cancel out the Englishness which is bizarre. The English is to sort of, almost deny that racism exists. I mean, look at the Sewell report. Anybody who took- anybody who had anything to do with that Sewell report, I mean it was a nonsense to say that systemic racism doesn't exist. It was harmful more than anything else. I mean, if you want to subscribe to that, those thoughts, go ahead but I don't think for me, they're not being authentic. In order to embrace that way of thinking, you have to deny a whole element of your blackness and a whole element of the black experience, in order to accept the kind of, the idea that, yes, England is this wonderful place and open and accepting and tolerant and I can't really subscribe to that. I was thinking about this other day. I bought an Irish rugby shirt. I've worn an Italian football shirt. I've never owned an English football shirt, never. Never, and I don't know why that is. I feel, it feels somehow, I don't know. I feel almost uncomfortable and that's quite sad.
Annie [00:45:00] It's incredibly sad.
David [00:45:01] It's quite sad.
Annie [00:45:02] When you think about your life here and your contributions and everything that you've done for perpetuating this, like, amazing image of what Britain looks like you know what I mean? And it's like, you not being able to feel English is fucking awful! It's not okay. And I know it's not just you. I know it's so many people, but it just goes to show how much work there is to still do, you know? And I don't mean from you, I mean from the systems around you. Like when you're abroad, David, do you say that you're British or English?
David [00:45:34] Funnily enough. When I'm abroad, I put on my most cut glass English voice, particularly in America because they love it and-
Annie [00:45:43] Oh they love it. They love it, yeah.
David [00:45:43] I'm sort of an exotic other. If I'm pulled over by the police over there I say 'I'm terribly sorry, officer'.
Annie [00:45:49] *laughs*.
David [00:45:49] Completely spins their heads. Somehow they go, 'oh, he's English, oh! Oh my God where are you from?'... 'I'm from London'... 'Oh! Oh!'. And then they suddenly just get completely disarmed because.
Annie [00:46:02] Yeah.
David [00:46:02] They presume they're talking to a person as opposed to, you know, whatever they might consider black people to normally be, which is a bit bizarre. But I mean, I've found it incredibly disarming to use my English accent in America.
Annie [00:46:16] *laughs*.
David [00:46:16] Which is probably why- and that's probably something to do with the fact with why there's sometimes a bit of conflict between black Americans and black English people, because erm- and there is a little bit, there is a little bit of conflict there, particularly in the acting community. You know, Americans feel that we are not authentically black because we don't have- we don't experience life in a similar way. And we don't. And, you know, the racism there is much more palpable, much more in your face, much more brutal. So we both have the same skin colour, but we've experienced life in a very different way.
Annie [00:47:08] David, last question, and this relates to the change that you'd like to see. So, you said for that, that you would like there to be less stigma around mental health and to find ways to open discussions around the subject. And I was reading your Guardian article, I'm just going to read a gorgeous quote from it where you say, 'all we can do is keep shedding more light in the hope that it's enough to keep the darkness at bay'. Is this how you bare it all? By sharing it all?
David [00:47:33] I think so, and you know, like yourself, you bring a bit of magic with you, with your podcasts and allowing people to talk and hopefully bring a bit of light into the world and, you know, I really appreciate you asking me to sit here and talk to you today. That's all we can do, because if we don't, it's unbearable. It's unbearable. I mean, those first few weeks of the, you know, special military operation, I was depressed. I got really depressed. I couldn't believe the pictures I was seeing. And the horrendous human suffering that I was seeing. I found it really depressing. And I had to stop watching and just thought, right I need to be able to just do what I can, what I can to put some light into the world. Because if I don't, I'm going to throw yourself under a bus, because, you know, it's unbearable. So, we shed light where we can. We do good where we can. It's whatever little way that we can is to shed a little light. I think that's all we can do to sort of, as I say, keep the sort of big bad wolf at bay because sometimes it does become a little too heavy. And a lovely black lady stopped me in the park the other day and she said, 'I want to be like you', she said, I said 'what do you mean?', she said, 'oh, well, you know, I saw your program and you know, you don't take medication anymore', and I said, 'no, no', you know I explained to her that there's about fifteen percent of people who don't take medication anymore. She said, 'well, I still do' and I said, 'well that's okay', I said, 'just keep', you know, I said 'just keep taking it. Don't not take it, because the minute you stop taking it, that's when you're going to have problems'. She said, 'yeah, I've found that, but I want to be like you', she said. I said, 'well, maybe one day you will but just for now, do me a favour, keep taking the tablets'. And we both laughed and, you know, that was that little bit of interaction. But it's great that people- she saw me and felt obliged to come and approach me and I think if I hadn't had done that documentary, if I'd just been David Harewood the actor-celebrity, I wouldn't have had any of those interactions and this discussion wouldn't have gone out there. So, I'm very pleased that it has and I'm very glad that people feel that they can talk to me about these subjects because maybe they wouldn't have spoken to other people about it.
Annie [00:49:53] Yeah, well, on behalf of the listeners, I would just like to say thank you for exposing yourself in such a way and kind of sharing this journey with the world and allowing people to be seen and heard and to feel like they can talk about this stuff. It's so beneficial and useful to so many people. So, yeah, thank you so much, David, for your time and and your story today.
David [00:50:18] Thank you.
Annie [00:50:23] The first thing I would recommend you do after listening to this conversation with David is to go and seek out his memoir. It's called, Maybe I Don't Belong Here. It's been used as a mental health resource around the world now, and it has helped countless amounts of people. We'll put a link to buy it in the show notes, do go read it. Crucial reading, I think. And if you need help with your mental health or have been affected or know someone who has been affected by the topics raised in this episode, the Samaritans can be reached on 116123. Again, check the show notes for details outside the UK and Ireland. So, next week we have a very different conversation. Joe Lycett describes himself as a comedian, painter, filmmaker, sculptor, television presenter, poet, gardener, dietician, radio presenter, tuning fork, Fiat Punto manual and queer. And I think that's about all you need to know for now. Seriously, though, Joe Lycett will be with you talking about some of his biggest personal changes in his life and speaking brilliantly and candidly about them all. Do not miss it. And thank you for listening. As always, it's such a buzz to hear your messages about how you're getting on with the episodes. Please make sure you rate and subscribe to Changes, or just follow it on whatever platform you're on so that you're notified when a new episode drops. It's very appreciated. Changes is produced by Louise Mason through DIN Productions. Thank you so much and take care you lot.