The Caribbean is seen as this place of paradise for visitors to come and frolic for a period of time and then return to their lives. The truth is that many people that live on these islands have never experienced the tourist attractions for the islands they live on. Underneath all the sunny days and rolling seas lies everyday people with thriving cultures built on independence from colonialism. The underlying social impact is slowly rising to the surface with the rise of mental health problems in the Caribbean.
When I was growing up, mental health in Jamaica was a foreign term. Psychologists existed but it was not a very socially accepted field. When I shared with my family, my desire to become a therapist, most of my family members laughed and joked that I would “deal with the crazy people.” In Jamaica, the people that walked the street – oftentimes barely dressed and carrying a heavy scent – were called “mad woman” or “mad man.” I guess maybe these would be considered the extreme cases as they had not received the help they needed before and had basically become societal outcasts. You were either normal or like these people in society’s eyes. I was young and did not fully understand that these people probably had various mental illnesses that were left untreated since our island did not believe in the concept of mental health. Even now, if the term “mad woman or man” in Jamaica is typed into Google, there are YouTube videos showcasing these people’s lives for the world to see. In graduate school, I began to realize that many of these people probably had diagnosable mental illnesses such as major depressive disorder and schizophrenia.
In many conversations I have with friends and colleagues now, there is a clear realization that many people in our communities do not fully understand the far-reaching consequences of colonization. The treatment of people with mental illnesses can be traced back to the British asylums. If we take into consideration the understanding that slaves were properties and care was not given to their well-beings, we can recognize that these perceptions were carried down through generations. Mental health would be of less importance than physical health which was required for the slaves to carry out their duties. Though the islands may have achieved political independence from their European colonizers, the perceptions lingered and became engrained into the psyche of the people.
Changes in Mental Health in the Afro-Caribbean
It is no longer uncommon to come across articles on Caribbean people dealing with mental illnesses. We’ve recently heard about Fidel Castro’s son’s suicide; prior to that, the Jamaica Observer reported the story of Denton Stewart who committed suicide on Father’s Day 2017. The Caribbean Current reported the prevalence of mental illnesses and disorders in Jamaica, with schizophrenia and depression being the most common mental illnesses in the island. With the rising numbers in mental illness issues, mental health care can no longer be relegated to the background.With the rising numbers in mental illness issues, mental health care can no longer be relegated to the background. Click To Tweet
Progression of Mental Health Care in the Caribbean
The Caribbean News Services reported that the percentage of people with mental illness in the Caribbean is projected to increase more than 50% by 2020; yet, the Caribbean does not have the resources in place to manage this increase. The Caribbean is filled with stigma and disbelief about mental illness. Shame and weakness is generally associated with mental disorders and illnesses.
But change not only needs to come from society; we need institutional changes as well.
The Bellevue Hospital in Jamaica that was created to provide care for patients with mental illness was first named the Jamaica Lunatic Asylum; it was then renamed to the Jamaica Mental Hospital and then to the Bellevue Hospital. Even in the naming of the institution meant to care for patients with mental illness lies unconscious shaming.
Additionally, much of the literature on mental health in the Caribbean is focused on severe mental illnesses and mental disorders. Yet, the Caribbean is filled with much trauma from natural disasters, weather changes, emigration, domestic violence, single parenthood, generational trauma, changes in family dynamics, death, poverty and generational poverty, racial, cultural, and skin prejudice, social class issues, prejudice, sexual violence, and criminal violence. All these issues are presented against the backdrop of slavery and colonization. But these issues do not seem to be highlighted in the fight to spread awareness of mental illnesses.The Caribbean News Services reported that the percentage of people with mental illness in the Caribbean is projected to increase more than 50% by 2020 Click To Tweet
The Caribbean is filled with European historical handprints from its history to the present as many islands still have allegiance to various European countries. Many of the cultural identities were created through these complex relationships. There is limited research on the true mental health impact in the Caribbean. And even less research on ways to improve these conditions. When I was in school, we were never even taught the concept of mental health. I am grateful for the awareness that has been developing but it is clear that more work needs to be done to continue spreading awareness and creating pathways to better treatment options.