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Speaking Out Against the Stigma of Mental Illness in the Caribbean

A depiction of how depression feels, taken from the Depression/The Blues flickr page; used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

A depiction of how depression feels, taken from the Depression/The Blues flickr page; used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

American comedian Robin Williams’ apparent suicide has triggered a discussion about depression and other forms of mental illness in the Caribbean blogosphere. The tragedy has inspired many bloggers to share their own experiences, as a way to raise awareness and help others.

Mental illness has long been considered taboo in the Caribbean. The colonial model of psychiatric treatment, which basically means banishing mentally ill people to “mad houses,” hasn't helped matters. Indeed, many of the Caribbean asylums established in the mid-1800s—more like prisons than places of refuge—still operate today. It's here where many sick people are locked away and isolated from the rest of society, so the general public doesn't have to confront the issue of mental illness.

Even as a ”get-out-of-jail” card, Caribbean society generally frowns on suicide, particularly when viewed through a religious lens. Attitudes about mental illness are changing gradually, however, with various regional governments investing more in mental wellness facilities. Jamaican blogger Bianca Welds has started a project asking her compartiots to share their experiences with mental illness, as a way of attacking the stigma attached to it:

Jamaican writer Brandon Allwood, now studying in Canada, wrote a long essay about his experiences dealing with depression and anxiety:

The first time I tried to kill myself, I was 15. I lunged through a window in my 5th form classroom and was pulled back by some of my classmates — who subsequently made much fun of the whole debacle. A few weeks later I tried clumsily to swallow a bunch of tablets – Excedrin Extra Strength to be precise. I had a massive stomach ache afterwards, but death was (sadly) nowhere close.

Allwood noted that depression is often seen as an affliction among wealthier people (many of whom are referred to as “browning” in Jamaica because of the lighter colour of their skin), even though poorer people of course also suffer from the disease. He also argues that Jamaica's outdated education system puts undue pressure on young people, thereby exacerbating the problem:

We must begin to ‘de-brown’ mental illness in Jamaica. Ironically, mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are more likely to occur in people who are poor(er?) and more disadvantaged in society. At some point we have to question why all the mental illness events and walks and days are seemingly supported by the same kind of people—‘brown’ and ‘uptown’ [...] Why it is that the cost for getting help for mental illness is so high. Why it is that there are no support systems in primary and secondary schools to help students deal with the ever-increasing pressure of an archaic exam-centric educational system with a multiplicity of other problems that have a severe impact on them.

Allwood's post, which is at times deeply intimate, has resonated powerfully online. In what is perhaps the most evocative passage, he calls on society to start taking mental illness more seriously.

Taking your own life is not a trivial matter. It is something that people usually think about for some time before making an attempt. In my own case, when I tried to hang myself from the pull up bar in my room five weeks ago, I thought not of myself but of my friends and family. I thought that I would be doing them a favour by leaving them with a memory of a good friend, and not having them deal with the dark horrible person I thought I had become. I felt like I hit a wall in my personal life with financial and school troubles, and I was absolutely tired of being a burden on the universe. For me it was a selfless thought, a heroic act and even though I am being treated now for my depression, I still regret having been too tall for the noose to do its job.

This is not a call for the government; it is a call for us all to seriously look at our attitudes towards mental illness. How we support our children, siblings, parents, friends and colleagues who are affected by the gamut of mental ailments. It is about us, as a people, being more open to the idea that sometimes we actually do need help and that ‘help’ is not always a case of cultural imperialism or ‘uptown’. It is an open call, for anyone who want[s] to be a better human being, to understand that people who struggle with mental illness need support and love.

 On Twitter, bloggers praised Allwood for his candor: 

In the Jamaica Journal, Kate Chappell spoke from the perspective of having a family member who is mentally ill, sharing the story of her struggle to cope with her sister's illness and suicide attempts:

You can’t just cheer someone up who is assaulted so gravely by serious mental illness. What seared my soul in the worst way was how dead her eyes appeared. How void of spirit her body was. How flat her voice sounded. In those moments, when my eyes met her lifeless ones, two emotions coursed through me: terror and rage. ‘Why can’t you just feel better?’ I would scream within. ‘Why can’t you just take a shower and go for a walk? Is life really that bad?’ Of course, I never said this to her, and I never really meant it.

Chappell eventually made peace with her sister's condition:

I learned to love her. I learned to accept her as she was, as well as my own panic and fear, both of which sparked this brutal judgment. I learned how to love a person whose spirit has been so sapped that they can barely tend to their most basic physical needs. I learned about loyalty and commitment and choice. And I learned gratitude. Every day she made it through another 24 hours, I was grateful. In turn, I learned to appreciate those around me, from those I love dearly to strangers on the street.

She concluded:

As human beings, most of us possess a natural aversion to discussing such a mystifying, counterintuitive action as ending our own life. We instinctively strive to preserve ourselves at all costs, so when a fellow human being does not act in accordance with this fundamental drive, it causes fear and confusion. But this is precisely why we should address this reality: the pain does not have to be endured alone, and the abolishment of a solitary struggle could prevent some loss. Our society is ceaseless in its attempt to eradicate physical pain; we should apply the same to mental illness.

Brave bloggers like Allwood and Chappell hope that more people sharing their experiences with mental illness can help destigmatize the issue, reforming public attitudes that are still in many ways toxic to mental health. If people learn to speak more openly about depression and other diseases, people will find that they're saving lives.

The number one cause for suicide is untreated depression. Depression is treatable and suicide is preventable. You can get help from confidential support lines for the suicidal and those in emotional crisis. Visit Befrienders.org to find a suicide prevention helpline in your country.

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