May 9, 2023 -Mental illness is a silent disease that ripples through our communities, negatively impacting and outright claiming the lives of the youth and the elderly alike. According to the World Health Organization, one in four persons globally will be affected by a mental disorder in their lifetime.
Mental health disorders are now broadly recognized as the fifth major non-communicable disease. Many things are classified as disorders and they can develop through a variety of triggers. Common disorders include depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, and substance dependency. Triggers can be natural or man-made. Poverty, climate change, natural disasters, loss, and culture and norms can all play a role in the development or further exacerbation of mental disorders.
For decades in the Caribbean mental illness was discussed in hushed tones or outright mocked. Crucially, the chief issue seems to be ignorance. Many who suffer from mental illness cannot identify the possible signs to procure a diagnosis. They lack the vocabulary. Even with the knowledge, they might not know where to seek help from. The social stigma further compounds this issue with many seeing all mental disorders as a marker of insanity, with the only option being sentenced to mental institutions with horrible reputations.
There are many theories as to the origin of these stigmas. Studies conducted by European researchers attribute them to the predominance of religious structures throughout the region. Tara Armour, a practicing clinical psychologist based in Kingston Jamaica, has another theory. She posits that the negative attitudes towards mental illness are remnants from colonialism, arguing that communities were eroded over time and survivors were taught to prioritize the self over the community.
Regardless of the cause, there’s no escaping the deepening crisis around us. The COVID-19 pandemic furthered this crisis through the general anxiety over our short-term and long-term health and enforced isolation. In the face of this unignorable crisis, Caribbean governments and organizations have taken a more hands-on approach. It is no longer uncommon to see billboards with suicide hotlines. In Jamaica, the National Health Fund (NHS) now covers both psychiatric check-ups and prescriptions treating medication.
There are also a handful of extra-governmental organizations making an impact as well.
The Jamaican Psychological Society (JamPsych) is a collection of trained medical professionals who collaborate to destigmatize conversations around mental health, educate the public about the importance of mental health, and strive for the maintenance of the highest professional standards among psychologists and counseling practitioners.
The Trinidad and Tobago Association of Psychologists (TTAP) is JamPsych’s equivalent organization in Trinidad and Tobago. Established in 1962, their mission is to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge of psychology throughout the islands. The TTAP was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 2000.
While the tenor of the conversation around mental illness is slowly changing, many throughout the region are still unaware of the signs and symptoms of the various mental illnesses. Here online resources help to bridge the gap. Popular content creators and social media influencers such as Julie Mango and a host of others, are transparent about their own mental health struggles, which has helped to destigmatize conversations.
Online tests such as the one offered by Mental Health America (MHA) are free to take, and are an excellent first step on a mental health journey.