The Stigma Around Mental Illness In The Caribbean
A lot of work has been done within Caribbean communities to destigmatize mental illness. There are social enterprises like Wholeness and Wellness Counseling services that provide help to adolescents, women, and men who are struggling with emotional pain in Trinidad. Their social media campaigns and regular podcast, On the Couch, address topics many of us are still becoming comfortable addressing and exploring. In St. Lucia, the Golden Hope Hospital has been rebranded as St. Lucia National Mental Wellness Center (a great move after a well thought out rebranding strategy). In Barbados, the Barbados Society of Psychology serves as the governing body that promotes and maintains professional standards in psychology on the island (it’s similar to the American Psychological Association).
Attitudes Towards Mental Illness
While I’m proud of the progress made toward addressing and destigmatizing mental illness in my region, there are still attitudes that view psychopathology as uncomfortable, threatening, and shameful. These attitudes continue to foster discrimination toward persons who are experiencing mental health problems. Beyond attitudes, there are still negative media representations that highlight unfavorable stereotypes; and there are still cases where persons use terms linked to psychopathology inaccurately or offensively.
The harmful effects associated with stigma include the reluctance of vulnerable persons seeking help, a lack of understanding from their family and friends, an inability for vulnerable persons to find employment or housing, as well as social isolation and harassment. What’s even more heartbreaking is that vulnerable persons end up internalizing the stigma and associating themselves with the labels placed on them.
We owe it to the mental health community to raise our voice against stigmatizing practices. We each have a role to play in ensuring that those who do suffer feel less afraid to reach out and get the support they need in the moments when they need it most.
Change Starts With Our Language Towards Mental Illness
Tackling the unfavorable outlook surrounding mental health starts by encouraging more individuals to talk about it openly while using more appropriate language.
Words like “mental”, “weirdo”, “crazy”, “head no good” need to be eliminated. Sentences like “She is a bipolar” should be replaced with “she is living with bipolar disorder”. Sentences that include phrases like “they are suffering from XXXX” should be replaced with “they are experiencing XXXX; have been diagnosed with XXXX”. Descriptions such as “I’m depressed over my cake not coming out right” need to be replaced with references to just being sad, while loose statements like “I’m extremely OCD about XXXX” should be thrown out altogether, as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder goes beyond being mightily concerned about cleanliness.
Normalize Mental Health
Stigma is almost always based on a lack of understanding rather than the facts. That’s why it’s important for us to engage our family members and friends in conversations about how they can best identify signs, or seek treatment options. Normalizing mental health for you may mean speaking openly – without shame or self-consciousness – about your own experience with mental illness or easily identifying it with your family or friends. It may mean encouraging someone who you may see struggling to courageously speak about their struggle. It may mean simply asking them how they are doing and actually listening.
I truly believe when we each play our role in educating and normalizing mental health in our families, workplaces, and romantic relationships, more individuals would feel as comfortable talking about their PTSD, bipolar or anxiety as they are talking about their hair or diabetes. I also envision that it would markedly reduce the stigma-induced challenges experienced by those with mental health problems.
In the Caribbean, our approach to addressing mental health is more reactive than preventative. We have strengthened our approach to responding to many mental health problems. Just consider the recently funded program by the Caribbean Development Bank that has been set up to enhance capacity for mental health and psychosocial support in disaster management in the Caribbean. This program, although great, is a direct response after Hurricane Maria and Irma ravished my region. Can you imagine the tremendous targeted psychosocial support that could have been provided, had it been put in place or considered relevant before the damage caused by our two deadliest hurricanes to date?
I continue to live by my grandmother’s words: “prevention is better than cure”. Proaction is always the best approach; as, addressing the problem before there is a problem has always been better than addressing the problem after we have identified the problem. Proaction is the best approach and it starts with us. That means if I am a teacher, I would be responsible for fostering discussions on mental health problems and care with my students. It means I am responsible for celebrating self-care practices in my friendship circles. It means I am responsible for encouraging my friends to go to therapy, even if there isn’t a “problem”.
It means doing my little before corporate bodies catch the fire and do their little too.
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