David Harewood: Accepting experiences of psychosis
For more than 30 years, part of actor, writer, and director David Harewood’s life story has been obscured from his view. Now he’s discovered what really happened to his younger self, and has found peace, purpose, and liberation after coming to terms with his own experience of psychosis
David Harewood is sitting in his kitchen at home in the UK, explaining he’s now happily free from quarantine after recently returning from filming in Vancouver. We’re chatting over Zoom, and seeing David’s face on the laptop in front of me feels very familiar – and no wonder. He’s just finished a six-year stint on Supergirl, having also been a regular on our screens thanks to series such as Homeland and The Night Manager, and the incredible documentaries Black is the new Black, Why is Covid Killing People of Colour?, and Psychosis and Me.
The latter is one of the reasons we’re speaking. Since sharing his own experience of psychosis on the BBC documentary, David has become increasingly passionate about supporting others living with mental health challenges, and he’s willing to share his sometimes painful past to help move the conversation on, and help others in the future.
He’s recently taken a further leap into the mental health sphere, by committing his life story to the page in his first book, Maybe I Don’t Belong Here: A Memoir of Race, Identity, Breakdown and Recovery. It’s beautifully written, full of warmth and childhood memories, unflinchingly honest about his time in the mental healthcare system, his lifelong experiences of racism, and the unforgivable inequalities that exist for Black people experiencing mental ill-health.
David grew up in Birmingham with his parents and three siblings, and this is where the book begins. Thinking back to his early years stirred up many emotions.
“It was fascinating to remember how innocent I was. I started life with rose-tinted glasses,” he says. “Sitting in our front room as a child, watching TV, and listening to my parents howling with laughter, those were my happiest days! I credit Mum and Dad for creating a safe space for me to create and dream. Everything I do now sits upon that little boy, and the imagination that was sparked back then.”
David left Birmingham in his late teens to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), after a teacher saw his potential in school productions, and introduced him to the idea of becoming an actor.
“I have to thank Eric Reader. I’ll never forget his name. If ever there was a eureka moment in my life, that conversation was it,” David says. “I went home that night knowing what I wanted to do with my life.”
David says that he “found his tribe” while studying at RADA, but life after graduation was difficult. At just 23, David had a traumatic psychotic episode, was sectioned twice, and returned to Birmingham to recover. But it wasn’t until he made Psychosis and Me, some 30 years later, that David revisited this experience, and realised how deeply confronting the past would impact him.
“I’d buried what happened to me so deep that all I had was a few memories of the mania,” he explains. “It was only when my friends Nick and Jez took me to the hospital I was admitted to, that it all came flooding back. That was the first time I broke down.”
During filming, David was met with further details of his episode – notes taken by clinicians, recording what he’d said to them at the time.
“My wonderful director, Wendie, had planned a sequence where I’d pick up my medical records and read them. The first thing I saw was ‘I have to save the boy,’ and ‘I’ve merged hearts with a young Black boy,’ and it just terrified me. I suddenly realised and remembered all of the things that starting spinning me out of control, which was a complete loss of identity.”
Being othered played a major role in David’s diminishing sense of self prior to his breakdown. He’d been on the receiving end of racism from five years old, experienced microaggressions on a daily basis, was told by a director that he had “too many white friends”, and had regularly been asked unprompted questions about his ‘right’ to play roles that “were not written for a Black person”. His identity was constantly challenged, dissected, and abused by others.
David says that the boy he believed he needed to save back then was his younger self – a part of him that was being eroded by these societal pressures, judgement, and racism.
“Even though I was confused when I had my breakdown, I am sure that was the boy I had to get back to. That was the boy who started these dreams of acting and performing, but had become lost in the interim years.”
After filming wrapped, David put his medical records back into a sealed envelope, not ready to delve deeper yet. Two years later when he began to write Maybe I Don’t Belong Here, he knew that the time had come to look at them again.
“My medical notes were in Vancouver, so when I returned there for filming and was in quarantine, I read every page,” he says. “It was really difficult. That document contained all my fears and worries, but having sat with it, read it, and understood it, that really liberated me.”
Having the chance to digest his past, without the presence of a camera, gave David an opportunity to make peace with the mental health crisis he experienced as a young man.
“Having been through that, and come out the other side, I feel like nothing can harm me. I now understand exactly what happened to me. I understand that I buried that pain, and I’ve finally acknowledged it. I feel like that’s made me 10 stone lighter.”
This acceptance enabled David to feel proud and grateful for the progress he’s made, personally and professionally, ever since. He counts himself very lucky to have been able to pick up his acting career after his debilitating period of mental illness – aware that isn’t the case for everyone, and that stigma is still very much alive and kicking. One example stands out for him: a man from the US contacted him after the documentary aired, to say that he’d disclosed to his employer that he lived with bouts of severe depression, and could often feel himself spiralling. The result? He was immediately fired from his job at the law firm.
Drawing attention to discrimination and racism around mental illness and treatment is crucial to David. He peppers his book with gut-wrenching statistics to underline the fact that his previous experiences within the mental health care system as a Black man are by no means unique, or past history.
“According to the latest government figures,” he writes, “Black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people, and are far more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia or psychosis. Out of 16 specific ethnic groups, Black Caribbean people have the highest rates of detention in psychiatric hospitals.”
By including these stats, David hopes people will think about the real life impact of societal and mental health treatment inequalities, rooted in racism.
“I want readers to understand the pressures on people of colour,” he says. “Quite often, people dismiss the existence of racism altogether. We’re told it’s in the past and it doesn’t matter – but it really does. It matters to us.”
Now that Maybe I Don’t Belong Here is out in the world, David will continue to speak up about these issues, and support others who talk openly about mental illness, too. He’s proud, he says, of sports people such as Simone Biles and Raheem Sterling, who have publicly shared their need to seek help for mental ill-health. David knows first-hand how empowering this can be.
Right now though, David is looking forward to the future. Revisiting his early passion for performance for the book has reignited his love of acting tenfold, and having told his story to date, in his own words, he’s feeling fit, focused, and ready for his next chapter.
‘Maybe I Don’t Belong Here: A Memoir of Race, Identity, Breakdown and Recovery’ by David Harewood (Bluebird, £20) is out now. Listen to the full interview on Happiful’s podcast, ‘I am. I have’.
Hero image: Films of Record
To connect with a counsellor to discuss experiences of psychosis or racism, visit counselling-directory.org.uk