I read a lot of books about mental health. Generally, they fall into two categories: Fiction portraying real experiences of mental health and addiction, or authors who write of their own personal experiences with passion and honesty. David Harewood’s brilliant book, Maybe I Don’t Belong Here, is very much the latter.
I know who David Harewood is. I remember him being blown up in one of the best scenes in in the TV series Homeland, in which he portrayed an American spy boss superbly. I was aware he had experienced psychosis and had seen him talk about his recovery, which led me to his book. None of my prior knowledge of him prepared me for the impact it would have.
Harewood brilliantly takes the reader on a journey of understanding his experience of psychosis, trauma, racism, and discrimination in the UK I grew up in. Although he paints an unflattering view of the Britain of my childhood, he does qualify this by noting that if he had been a psychotic “large black man” in the USA, he would probably be dead.
David became unwell in his early twenties. He experienced racism, beginning with the police referring to his size and skin colour, and a system that ignored his story and his traumatic experiences. In fact, this presented more barriers to recovery than any of his symptoms. He takes the reader back to his childhood and outlines a clear link between the trauma, racism and squalor during his youth and the psychosis in his twenties. If we had a system that understood this with equal clarity, or leaders who wanted to truly address these fundamental causes that we can see is doing so much damage, things would be so much better.
You may be expecting that the book then becomes a story of recovery and the launch of a Hollywood career. But refreshingly, this is not the case. While it is a book about hope and recovery that will inspire anyone who works with people experiencing mental health issues, it doesn’t give a nice comfortable happy ending. Although Harewood never had the retraumatising experience of hospital admission, his recovery was a slow journey of self-discovery and of understanding what he needed to come to terms with within himself to stay well. He describes his illness as an inevitable consequence of growing up surrounded by trauma and racism, where he was always made to feel like he didn’t belong.
He is also acutely aware of the fact that the environment that led him to experience psychosis remains unchanged, and he says of the UK: “The country’s seemingly rising tide of populist nationalism reminds me of a time I’ve lived through before, only this time instead of people chasing me through gardens, they are writing newspaper columns and spewing division from social media, from radio shows and from parliamentary pews,” he writes. “This time it’s my mind that has to be nimble and quick to survive.”
Maybe I Don’t Belong Here is dark, terrifying depiction of social exclusion and trauma. It paints an awful picture of modern mental health systems and the lack of empathy and understanding within them. However, for me it is a book filled with hope. Every time a high profile figure like Harewood tells his truth, we move forward a little bit. We need as many people as possible to read this book and others like it as we look to change how we respond to young men going through what David Harewood went through.
I have held professional roles within the mental health and addictions sector for over 20 years. I have been a senior leader for Auckland District Health Board, Ministry of Health New Zealand, NZ Heart Foundation and for the past 5 years I have operated as Group Chief Executive Officer for Ember Korowai Takitini.
Harewood, David. (2021). Maybe I don’t belong here, A memoir of race, identity, breakdown, and recovery. Bluebird. ISBN: 9781760989668