Book Review: ‘The Colour of Madness: Mental Health and Race in Technicolour’

Book cover with multi coloured circles around the book title which reads 'The Colour of Madness, Mental Health and Race in Technicolour'.

Book Review: Samara Linton, and Rianna Walcott. Colour of madness: Mental health and race in Technicolour. (S.l.: BLUEBIRD, 2023).

This guest post comes from Qianxia Chen, an MA student at the Institute of Cultural Practices at the University of Manchester. Qianxia recently completed a placement at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre.

‘The Colour of Madness: Mental Health and Race in Technicolour’ is a groundbreaking anthology that explores the intersection of race and mental health in contemporary society. Edited by Samara Linton and Rianna Walcott, this book provides a platform for voices often marginalized in mental health discussions. This book is also a powerful testament to the resilience of people of colour who have experienced mental health challenges. The contributors to this book are diverse, both in terms of their backgrounds and their experiences. They include people from BAME communities, as well as people from LGBTQ+ and disabled communities. Through their writing and artworks, they share their personal experiences of mental illness, racism, and the ways in which these two issues intersect.

Specificity is the value, beauty and also advantage of this book. Each chapter is named after a colour which represents a different aspect of mental health and thus makes this book look like a kaleidoscope. Red is about rage, passion and defiance. Orange expresses panic and anxiety with overwhelming and desperate thoughts. Yellow presents the complexity of hope as the sun can be both warm and burning. Green symbolises families and filial relationships like intertwined vines. Blue holds engagements with wide types of institutions. Indigo is for melancholy and depression. Violet means unrealistic experiences such as dreams and the otherworldly. This rainbow-like collection is comprised of not only individual stories, essays and poetry, but also polychrome artworks and their artists’ notes in the middle of the book.

One of the strengths of this book is the way in which it challenges the dominant narrative around mental health, which is often centered on a white, middle-class experience. Although it has been announced that ‘Race and ethnic disparities denying the existence of systemic or institutional racism in the UK’ (March 2021), BAME communities are still being systematically disprivileged by the UK healthcare system. The contributors demonstrate how racism and discrimination can impact mental health in unique and complex ways, and how this can manifest in different forms of mental illness. They also highlight the ways in which mental health services can fail to adequately support people from BAME communities. The writing in this book is touching and emotive, with each contributor bringing their own unique voice and perspective.

The first story in the anthology called ‘He Was Red That Day’ left me with a long-lasting and profound impression until I finished the whole book. The story revolves around Ismael, a depressed individual who struggles to cope with himself and the world around him. Heavy traffic, large crowds and busy life in London make his neck go red and hot, feeling suffocated. Anxiety, the ‘red’ inside his body, comes in waves and threatens to engulf him. Human contact is too overwhelming for him although it is just what he needs for his therapy. Hence he chooses to sit on an empty bench along the crowded River Thames where he is near people but invisible.

View of bookshelf in RACE Centre library with books stacked up in the foreground.
The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre

It is Ismael’s ‘mental health day’ when he turns off the phone, getting rid of his work, flatmates and fellow students temporarily, and stays alone. An elderly woman disturbs his peace and silence, accusing him of being rude and taking her seat. Under rage and surprise, he speaks to the unreasonable woman although he hates communicating with strangers. This absurd quarrel about the ownership of the bench ends up with the woman’s ‘You can’t let anyone drag you down’. Ismael suddenly feels himself understood. The anger turns to relief and even appreciation.

Ismael continues his journey in the Tate Modern. After treating himself a glass of red wine at the cafe, he searches for a painting of the ‘Red’ series that has moved him as a child. Mindlessly walking in the gallery makes him feel safe because he is near people but free of the weight of conversation. His meditation is interrupted by a little girl who asks for help as she is lost. After communicating with the staff, it turns out that the little girl’s grandpa has had a heart attack in the toilet and has been taken to the hospital. Her mother is now on the way to get her. Things don’t look good but seem not that bad as at least the little girl can find her way home. Without saying goodbye to the little girl, he continues to find the painting he is eager for.

The crowds in the gallery move like a wave, pulling in and out. Miserable thoughts soon sadden him further and he can’t help blaming himself for wasting a day. Until he makes himself calm down, he stands extremely close to his painting, letting the red wash over him like he always wanted. ‘Sanguine’, he sees from the painting, like warm blood pumping through his body and keeping him alive. ‘Sanguine’, also he feels from the painting, reminds him how much he appreciates his life. Everyone deserves joy and love, far more than sadness, and can give them to others, like what Ismael does today.

Ismael finds solace in a painting that speaks to him on a deep level and in helping a lost little girl. Through these adventures, he learns to appreciate his life and the importance of human connection. The story is well-written, with vivid descriptions that bring the settings and characters to life. The use of colour symbolism, particularly ‘red’, adds depth to the story and reinforces its themes. Red is not only for anger and anxiety, it can become happiness. The character of Ismael is relatable and sympathetic, and I find myself rooting for him as he goes on his journey.

Overall, I highly recommend ‘The Colour of Madness’, an essential but different reading for anyone interested in this topic. It is a thought-provoking and challenging anthology that offers important insights into the ways in which mental health is shaped by systemic inequalities. This book tells the readers about mental health and its intersection of race in a serious but not academic way. I hope you can find a little empathy in their colourful stories and artworks.