Mental health issues still appear to be taboo in Barbados and the wider Caribbean, but people diagnosed with these illnesses are being encouraged to be honest with themselves, speak up and get help.
That was the message underscored during a United We Speak interactive event, hosted by Barbadian Danette Callender-McConney and Canadian Anahita Negarandeh of Eluma Productions, last Thursday night at the Ocean Two Resort & Residences in Dover, Christ Church.
Organizers said United We Speak was the first step towards a wider mental health and sports-oriented global project through Eluma Productions.
Heavy rains and thunder were not enough to deter the gathering, who witnessed and applauded three touching testimonies that placed in perspective several mental health challenges experienced by ordinary persons, and the stigma and discrimination those individuals face.
Negarandeh, a 26-year-old who was born in Iran but then moved to Toronto with her parents, told an audience that included members of the National Mental Health Commission, about the anxiety disorders she suffered throughout her school life and being bullied and assaulted by classmates in 2008.
She spoke about how she hit “rock bottom” in December 2008, despite having been earlier accepted into her dream university – University of Waterloo – and how her persistent challenges led her to depression. This caused her to soon switch universities and programmes and to attempt suicide just before Christmas that year, mainly as a result of feeling hopeless and a burden to others.
“All I wanted was for the pain for myself and the pain that I thought my existence was causing everyone around me to end. Death seemed like the only choice,” she said.
After that episode, she spent five days in hospital fighting for her life and regretting what she had done.
“Somehow, through a miracle, I survived and was given a second chance to live. I lost several best friends due to stigma, but my parents and relatives were there for me,” Negarandeh disclosed.
In 2009, at York University, she met Barbadian Callender-McConney who became her best friend and the big sister she had always wished for – and now also her business partner. During Negarandeh’s health sciences studies, she discovered her true passion in the world of planning multi-cultural events.
She also told her audience that though suffering a few relapses over time, she has been able to manage them through physical activity, dance and planning events. One of her major goals was fulfilled when she graduated with a degree in Psychology and worked for the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games. For 2017, she is a member of the Organizing Committee for Prince Harry’s Invictus Games, also to be staged in Toronto.
Another young female, Barbadian Camille Adaeze Evelyn told of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder after facing several challenges as a teenage student living away from her native Barbados and trying to find her calling in This was compounded, she said, when she realized she was gay and was trying to understand her sexuality, which led to clashes with many in Barbados who were socialized in the Christian faith.
“I was not diagnosed at the time and I just felt bad and worthless. I came back to Barbados in 2012 and was still living at home and this was stressful,” she said.
Evelyn further disclosed that she benefited from a life-changing experience in 2013 when, as a 23-year-old, she was admitted to the psychiatric ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and overcame depression after some therapy and healing.
“At that time, I came to realize that a lot of people were going through the same experiences as me but no one was talking about it. Depression is not something we talk about in the Caribbean and that was one of the reasons I started my social media campaign #FaceDepression,” she said.
Evelyn said she has found her calling in music and is working on releasing her first album, Dae1. She treated the audience to two of her rap singles entitled Love Is Magic and Foreigner. Ashleigh Phillips also performed the song Skyscraper, which urged persons who were feeling down to pick themselves up.
Sport psychology consultant Paul Sealy, who opened the night session with a story of his own experiences as a troubled and delinquent teenager at secondary school in Barbados, related to his audience how sports helped him to move from a high school dropout to a university graduate and a mental health and life coach for others.He said he developed skills in sports while growing up in Barbados and this served him in good stead when he attended university in Canada and assisted him in managing his challenges.
“One of the key things to being mentally healthy is to develop skills early. Unfortunately, most people learn these skills and qualities by default and along the way,” he said.
At university, Sealy said, he started to bridge the gap between mind and body, and repeatedly told his audience that getting involved in sports was a critical learning curve for young persons who were seeking their path in life, as sports cultivated several important life skills.
“Energy flows where focus goes,” he said.
Chairman of the National Mental Health Commission Archdeacon Eric Lynch praised the partners of Eluma Productions for organizing the event and said it was informative and timely, particularly as the commission was examining ways to reduce the stigma and integrate persons suffering from mental illness back into the community.