The Future Talks: Mental Health Matters – It’s Time for Caribbean Youth to Speak Up.
Mental Health is one of the most pressing concerns of our generation. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the continued stressors of daily living, mental illness has become one of the most daunting non-communicable diseases in the Caribbean.
The general attitude towards mental illness in the Caribbean has been informed by biased and archaic misinformation, leading to stigma and distrust of mental health professionals. What’s more, the disparity between the westernised school of thought which informs psychological and psychiatric practice is, at times, at odds with our Caribbean culture. For example, Caribbean nationals living abroad are often diagnosed with Schizophrenia and other disorders characterised by psychosis to a greater degree than their non-Afro-Caribbean counterparts due to our “unconventional” faith based practices. Behaviour which may be typical in our historically rich and diverse Caribbean culture is perceived to be a symptom of clinical concern when viewed from the Eurocentric perspective of our former Colonisers.
The discrepancy between Caribbean culture and that of W.E.I.R.D societies (Western Educated Industrialised and Rich Democracies) is one which permeates our individual, interpersonal and cultural identities. Indeed, negative attitudes towards mental illness are a vestige of our colonial overlords, who believed that individuality equated inferiority and taught us to be wary of each other in order to protect themselves. This pervasive stigma towards mental illness within the Caribbean has conditioned us to prefer to suffer in silence than seek help for mental and emotional concerns for fear of being labelled “crazy”.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated physical and mental illness the world over. In my practice alone, concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have been identified to be contributing to an increase in preoccupation with health and hygiene, and experience of excessive and uncontrollable worrying, social isolation and hopelessness, and marked increase in agitation and irritability. While all of these experiences are normal and even healthy in moderation, the prolonged and extreme experience of any or all of these symptoms can be indicative of mental illnesses such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Anxiety, Major Depression, Chronic Stress and more. We, as a people, have already made the mistake of underestimating the severity of stress from daily living in our vibrant but often violent communities, and now we have underestimated the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our collective mental health.
My own experience throughout this pandemic has been unprecedented, but not uncommon: I moved to Jamaica in the summer of 2019 with enthusiasm to pursue a Graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. After living and studying in the United States. and the United Kingdom, it had always been important to me to return to the Caribbean to continue to learn and apply my expertise. I completed a Master’s degree in Forensic Mental Health in 2018 and returned to my twin-island home of Trinidad & Tobago, where I was unable to find a job. The lack of opportunities and resources in the field of mental health became apparent and continues to trouble me today. It was at that time that my search for continued educational experiences revealed that the Doctorate level Clinical Psychology program had already been discontinued at the University of the West Indies and the Master’s level program was no longer offered at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine. The lack of resources throughout the Caribbean was bothersome, but not surprising, and the continued difficulty in accessing and providing mental health support quickly became apparent.
In March of 2020, Jamaica, like most other Caribbean countries, experienced its first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the UWI made the transition to online learning. In the 18 months of this pandemic, I have completed a Master’s degree, worked as a consultant for The Healthy Caribbean Coalition, amongst other non-profit organisations, and completed my journey towards becoming a born-and-bred Caribbean Associate Clinical Psychologist. In this time, I have worked at the psychiatric unit of the University Hospital of the West Indies, in community programs across Jamaica, and in private practices here in Kingston. In this time, I have also struggled with anxiety, perfectionism, and periods of depression. The diversity of my professional and personal experience has only reinforced for me how similar we truly are. Though our struggles may look different – some experiencing health anxiety, some battling bouts of depression for the first time in their lives, some even developing symptoms of psychosis – the underlying concept is the same: we are all human, and we are all struggling. Each of us are struggling with the stressors of daily living, with the additional concern of an ongoing global pandemic.
I am not the only one who has had to adapt and re-evaluate my goals in the last 18 months. Working professionals have struggled with the transition to working from home, some needing to home-school their children and some becoming a live-in caretaker for elderly relatives. Students across the Caribbean have had to adjust to distance learning, an increasingly lonely and difficult demand. Inequitable access to resources, inability to find solace at home while mandated to reduce social interaction, and other realities which distinguish each Caribbean native from their neighbour have continued to exacerbate the difficulties we all face.
While Caribbean youth are statistically less likely to be impacted by severe COVID-19 illness, the pandemic has still placed a burden on their wellbeing. With education, job prospects and the lives of elder and vulnerable relatives threatened, youth have faced many stressors. Families have had to support each other like never before, and communities have had to protect themselves. Yet, with this increase in stress and responsibility has also come an increase in mental health awareness.
With the development and accessibility of social media and the increase in experiences of anxiety, stress, depression and other mental and emotional concerns has also come a rise in mental health awareness in the youth population. Throughout much of the pandemic, social media has been a tool which has connected friends and families through indefinite separation. Social media has also become a tool for spreading awareness and sharing experiences regarding mental health concerns. Many young people have turned to social media as an outlet to express their own experience and seek a community which will understand their loneliness, angst and concern. Social media accounts such as @jampsych_jm (The Jamaican Psyschological Society), @kadmpsychassociates (Kai Morgan & Associates, private practice) and @teahousetherapy (Sonia Wynter & Associates, private practice) can be helpful tools in finding an online community and learning more about psychological realities and good mental health practices.
Mental illness, by definition, makes us feel alone. Many people who struggle with their mental health often feel as though they are unique in this struggle, that they are somehow “wrong” or “broken” because they rarely see their own internal battle reflected in those around them. Indeed, we often do not realise that the external experience of some does not reflect the internal reality of most. Social media has become a tool where teens can feel somewhat anonymous and therefore be more vulnerable in sharing their internal experiences. There is comfort in the community of shared experience.
A quick Google search for “Caribbean Youth Mental Health” affords a plethora of resources. Many of the most readily accessible resources, however, are from international organisations which are difficult for our Caribbean youth to relate to, while some are extreme and often unappealing options provided by local government entities. It is important to note that resources are available, however the information to locate and access these resources is hard to come by. Without the wherewithal to contact the Ministry of Health or search for mental health practitioners in their community, many people would not know how to access the opportunity for psychological support. In these instances, organisations such as the Jamaican Psychological Society (JamPsych) and the Trinidad and Tobago Association for Psychologists (TTAP), for example, are valuable institutions which can assist the public in identifying resources within their community to address individual mental health concerns. In addition, free mental health screening can be accessed at mhascreening.org. A rise in social media accounts for organisations such as these, as well as private practice psychological resources, have contributed to promoting healthy wellness practices. Resources such as these can be found through the Ministries of Health and can be incredibly helpful in identifying and addressing mental health concerns.
Mental health is a broad term which encompasses a wide spectrum of illnesses, but mental health is more than illness alone. To achieve and maintain mental health requires a holistic approach to one’s own wellness: nutrition, physical activity and social support are amongst some of the best preventative actions to avoid mental illness. Just as it is routine to visit a general practitioner for a physical check-up, it should too be part of our routine to prioritise our own mental health. Rather than suffering in silence or waiting until a moment of desperation, it is my hope that my Caribbean counterparts will begin to understand and appreciate the importance of maintaining mental health. It is also my hope that the voices of our youth will lead this force for change; increased awareness and decreased stigma surrounding mental health.
COVID-19 has taught us many things. It has taught us the importance of human connection, and how difficult it can be to go without it. It has taught us the strength of community and the power of selflessness. It has changed the way we interact with each other, our freedom of movement, and even the way we learn and behave. Yet, the collective experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us the importance of our own mental health, something with which many people have struggled over the last 18 months. The right to health is an inalienable human right, and this includes mental health. It is time for the youth of the Caribbean to have a voice in their own experience and discussion surrounding health of all kinds: mental, physical and otherwise. While the pandemic has had undeniable detrimental repercussions the world over, I believe that it has presented an opportunity for Caribbean Youth to raise their voices louder than before and steer us towards a healthier and more tolerant future.
Tara Armour (MSc.) is an Associate Clinical Psychologist living and practicing in Kingston, Jamaica. She is originally from Trinidad & Tobago and has studied and practiced in the field of mental health for almost 10 years. She holds a BSc in Psychology from Northeastern University, an MSc in Forensic Mental Health from King’s College London and has recently completed her MSc in Clinical Psychology at the UWI, Mona. She can be found at @taratalkspsych or through the private practices with which she is currently working: Kai Morgan & Associates and Tea House Therapy in Jamaica.
 Hickling, F. W. (2005). The epidemiology of schizophrenia and other common mental health disorders in the English-speaking Caribbean. Revista Panamericana de Salud Pública, 18(4–5), 256–262. https://doi.org/10.1590/s1020-49892005000900005
 Hickling, F. W., Matthies, B. K., Morgan, K. A. D., & Gibson, R. C. (2013). Perspectives in Caribbean Psychology (2012–10-15). Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd.
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