It is Time for the Caribbean Community to Take Mental Health Seriously

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BY: KABRENA ROBINSON

In Jamaica, the news that recently captured the nation’s attention was the death of Haile Clacken. A man diagnosed with a mental illness shot to death by a security guard after allegedly climbing onto a guardsman truck. The death of Clacken was followed by outrage and protests from his family and community members, igniting a nationwide discussion on attitudes to mental illness in Jamaica.

The guard has recently been charged with murder, a mere victory anticipated by his family and community. From this, the family hopes to launch a campaign to increase mental health awareness across the country.

Clacken, 36, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness marked by alternating periods of elation and depression. As a graduate with honors from York University, a former journalist, and eminent educator and mentor, Clacken was a well-respected figure in his community. While the incident has garnered much-needed dialogue and attention to mental health awareness, it has also highlighted another problematic issue which is the privilege of possessing social stature in Jamaica. While Clacken’s status did not spare him from such a tragedy, it did bring his death and the circumstances around it one major thing, attention, something that the average unintelligible, raggedy homeless person with a mental illness would not be fortunate enough to obtain. Deaths of people with mental illness in the Caribbean are sometimes unreported and unrecognized.

This raises further discussions around the negative attitudes and stigmas existing in the Caribbean culture surrounding people with mental illness. Also, the dispassionate and inadequate efforts being made to facilitate and assist them, especially those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Mental illness can range from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, intellectual disabilities to developmental disorders including autism.

The most recent study carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that 60% of mental health patients in the Caribbean are less likely to have received mental health treatment or counseling. Individuals living with mental illness are reluctant to seek diagnosis and treatment because of discriminatory attitudes such as being ridiculed, isolated or labeled as “mad” and violent.

Mental health facilities and services are more developed in some countries namely Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago with greater accessibility to mental health institutions, free access to essential psychotropic medicines and other resources. However, mental illness in the Caribbean continues to be rampant, overlooked and stigmatized.

According to the study, the problem persists as centralized mental institutions being the only method for mental rehabilitation is not enough. Sixty to seventy percent of patients in psychiatric institutions labeled as “madhouses” in the Caribbean are often there for years without progress in overcrowded and sometimes deplorable spaces. This does little to help minor and severe cases of mental illness. The study recommends that the focus should be shifted towards establishing community-based psychiatric services so that patients with less severe illnesses will be more motivated to seek help without having to deal with the stigma attached to “madhouses”, this will also eliminate overcrowding in centralized facilities.

This is one solution. The bigger issue still lies with the stigma and discriminatory attitudes the Caribbean community shares as it relates to dealing with mental illness. More effort needs to be made to raise awareness on mental health issues in the Caribbean to minimize fear of being stigmatized if one seeks mental health services, and it starts with us as a community.

“Awareness needs to make the society understand that mental illness is often not the result of a defect in the individual, but rather the interplay of the individual amongst many environmental concerns,” states Alexandra Bodden, a lecturer at the University College of the Cayman Islands and an expert in Clinical Psychology.

“This viewpoint needs to be taught to those in the medical and mental health profession, and then advocated to the population at large.”

While the development of mental health awareness, prevention, and assisting programs are great for progress, the community needs to be receptive to them. People living in the Caribbean and even the diaspora here in Canada can assist with this issue.

Stigmas attached to mental illness is also an existing issue across the Caribbean diaspora in Canada. The solution begins with breaking the communication barriers instilled by this stigma. People with mental illness should know that it is ok to acknowledge their condition and seek help and the community should aim to become more mindful and informed on the topic.

It should no longer be suppressed, ignored or written off as a taboo; it requires unmitigated attention now.

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