Mental health is not something that makes for easy conversation in most Barbadian circles. For some, a loved one’s mental illness – or even one’s own struggles – are a source of shame, to be swept under the carpet and hidden away from prying eyes.
We have used all sorts of colloquial expressions to describe mental illness: ‘mad’, one ‘has the nerves’, ‘gone off’ or their ‘mind isn’t there.’ So with the dismissive shorthand often care shunning and ignorance.
This stigma often drives away those who are struggling to cope. Many conceal symptoms, in an effort to blend into society or be seen as ‘normal’.
There is little evidence to suggest we have evolved or matured to see mental illness no differently than physical ill-health, requiring compassionate care and effective treatment. Our psychiatric hospital remains hardly changed from its Victorian aspect when it was opened on the former Jenkinsville plantation in 1893. A full century later, Bajans still refer derisively to ‘Jenkins’. They would be as at home with their prejudice as 13th century English folk’s reference to Bethlehem Royal Hospital as “Bedlam”.
Yet, the mental health crisis has taken on added urgency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic which over the last two years has stripped all of us of our normal. Many if not most of us are likely to have experienced moments of depression and anxiety. People are stressed, lonely, and feel uncertain and fearful. Some of us may have weathered the storms, but many more are struggling and some have indeed given up, seeing no other alternative than to end their lives, denied the care and support they so deserved.
In recent weeks, we have seen a worrying increase in suicides at a rate of almost one per month, mainly involving young men.
At least two experts have urged authorities and the wider society not to turn a blind eye.
Director of Supreme Counselling for Personal Development Shawn Clarke says mental health issues are real and we must not allow suicide to become the norm.
“There are a lot of persons with suicidal ideas, or suicidal thoughts, or suicidal attempts, that would not necessarily reach the airwaves,” Clarke says.
“I think it is time that we pay close attention to it. We cannot afford to allow suicide to become the norm. We really need to put systems in place, put initiatives in place. We need to stop crying down everything that people are doing and come together and build avenues that can help young people to be able to stand on their feet and to be able to deal with some of the situations that they face.”
His sentiments were echoed just last week, as clinical psychologist Christa Soleyn pleaded for urgent interventions to save the lives of young people during a discussion on Youth Mental Health as part of activities for International Youth Day.
Soleyn said: “I am not saying it as a slogan, I am saying ‘God please, we need to get them the access to help that they need.”
She warned that many young people are grappling with a range of issues and authorities must act now to provide a lifeline before it’s too late.
“Lots of young people don’t know how to cope, said Soleyn. “I am talking about in schools.”
These calls underscore that shelving the issue and failing to have the conversation is a risk we can ill afford to make.
Admittedly, there’s no one-size-fits-all, easy fix solution for this issue. However, simple steps should involve education, acceptance, a willingness to support, and receptiveness to individuals struggling to cope. Equally important is the society’s interaction with, and support for those hurting and in need of hope. Families and communities must be empowered to recognize the signs of depression or anxiety.
In the United States, there has been policy intervention to finally match recognition of a need to treat mental illness with the same urgency and commitment required of emergency medicine for a heart attack or asthma crisis. It has unveiled a national 9-8-8 hotline to connect sufferers to counsellors and resources. The Biden administration has committed a further US $430 million ($860 million) to funding mental health resources at the state level.
While the states themselves have been slow to respond with the political will and funding levels to sustain the 988 effort, there can be no doubt that the federal government has presented citizens with options for help and support that otherwise would have met with police response in which both the illness and the patient are met with force, very often lethal, aimed primarily at people of colour who bear a disproportionate burden of mental illness.
What, then, will the response of our government be, beyond the typical platitude, the compassionate ministerial tone and the management of decline rather than progressive, proactive, wholistic action?
It is not inconceivable that as a government goes so go its people. If the political leadership is unwilling to change attitudes and action, then the wider society’s evolution on mental health is all the more unlikely to follow.