Actor, director, and activist David Harewood MBE is famed for his plethora of acting roles, as well as his pursuits as a driving force of change for cultural issues, such as mental health and racism. Born in 1965 near Birmingham, England, Harewood was one of four children born to parents Mayleen, a caterer, and Romeo, a lorry driver. Both had immigrated from Barbados to the UK in the 50’s and 60’s as part of the Windrush generation. As a class clown in school growing up, Harewood was often getting into trouble, but also came to realize his future lay in acting.
Launching a career on screen and stage
Demonstrating a natural set of abilities, and as a member of National Youth Theatre, Harewood was encouraged by a teacher to pursue acting, so he applied to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and was accepted.
His career began in 1990 and he has been featured in numerous popular films and TV shows including The Hawk, Harnessing Peacocks, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Blood Diamond, The Merchant of Venice, Ballykissangel, Man in the High Castle, and his most famous roles in Supergirl and as counterterrorism director David Estes in Homeland.
On stage, he broke barriers playing the first ever Black Othello at the National Theatre in 1997. Ultimately, he was appointed an MBE for his services to drama at the 2012 New Years Honours.
Life in activism: Confronting Racism
Within acting, Harewood has made documentaries on the subject of race and racism including: Why is COVID killing people of color? Black is the new black, and Could Britain ever have a black prime minister?
He has also done work with UNICEF—as a regular goalkeeper for UNICEF’s Soccer Aid, he was announced as the organization’s UK ambassadors. He has also been a champion of equal representation in the arts, speaking out about the need for relatable roles for BAME actors.
He has also spoken out and raised awareness regarding the Windrush generation, promoted organ donation, blood donation, and encouraged minority ethnic groups to vote.
Activism continued: A mental health advocate
Arguably, Harewood’s most meaningful contributions have been in the realm of mental health awareness and his actions as the Ambassador for the Mental Health Foundation.
With a personal journey and experience struggling with mental health, Harewood has become an advocate and a proponent of de-stigmatizing mental health struggles and opening up a cultural conversation on the subject.
After years of keeping his own experiences relatively private, on World Mental Health Day in 2017, Harewood announced his own struggles on social media to help raise awareness. He was subsequently commissioned by the BBC to make a documentary Psychosis and me about his personal mental health journey.
At the time of bringing his past to the public eye, he claimed he still could not remember large chunks of what had happened to him. As a student at RADA, Harewood’s mental health increasingly deteriorated, and his public story revealed his intimate past with his struggle with psychosis. As a student, he used alcohol to cope with his situation, and then had what he has referred to as a breakdown eventually started to occur.
His experience came to a head when he recalls waking up in a locked ward surrounded by psychiatric patients. Until he came public about his story, Harewood spent much of his life not even knowing the detailed records of his past or his history from that time and he later took it upon himself to investigate.
He recalled to The Guardian that his entrance into the world of acting was a confusing time where he “began to lose confidence on stage. I started drinking, before and after shows. Manically throwing myself into performances was the only way I could block out what was happening in my head.”
The Intersection between Mental Health and Marginalization
One area Harewood has pursued vehemently, in his path to understanding his past and mental health l is the role that racism or marginalization plays in one’s mental health.
Black men are one of the most overrepresented minority groups in inpatient mental health services. Harewood cites his role just out of RADA playing Romeo as a particular catalyst—in reading reviews of his performance or the production in general, he was consistently referred to as a ‘Black actor’ in a ‘Black production’ from a ‘Black theater company,’ and it lead him to internalize the restrictions of being Black in society, as he gained a sense of constraint about his options for the future.
In an interview with Chanelle Myrie, he asked himself ‘How much was the psychosis he experienced connected to the racism he was encountering and how many others in society were sharing this?’
According to the government race disparity audit and NHS mental health act, Black men in Britain are ten times more likely than white men to be diagnosed with a psychotic illness and four times more likely to be sectioned.
One hypothesis for this is that Black men enter the mental health system at a later stage in their journey than their white counterparts, out of fear of being stigmatized. Essentially, like Harewood, they arrive at the hospital in the crisis point.
Ultimately Harewood believes ‘Race and identity played a big part in my own breakdown.’ His feeling that negative social stigma deeply and slowly plays into one’s self-image is an example of a known effect of marginalization.
Coming out the other side
Harewood has taken his experience and grown from it. He has described that talking about and researching his experiences with psychosis ‘has been the single most important thing I’ve ever done,’ and he has found that by unpacking what and why the breakdown happened in the first place, he has been able to begin ‘acknowledging my own vulnerabilities, I’m able to understand myself better and care for myself in a way that previously wouldn’t have been an option for me.’
Now, years later and a public advocate for mental health in society, he describes that the episode has given him ‘enormous strength.’ His advice to others?
“If you’ve ever experienced or are experiencing some form of mental illness, I’d urge you to get some support and wish you the best of luck. It’s more common than you think. If you can find your way through the craziness, there’s treasure in it, I promise you.”