Mental Health and Youth in Jamaica

Mental Health and Youth in Jamaica

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“I think I’m okay, mostly, because I continue to be grateful for all my many blessings. But on some days, I wake up fighting all my many demons and I do not always walk away unscathed.” – Anonymous Jamaican youth.

Mental Health, while once overlooked by the majority of the population as a result of the Jamaican culture, has been of late been receiving a lot of attention through sensitization and knowledge of the seriousness of the matter. Research suggests that there is a stigma attached to the issue of mental health, especially in the Caribbean and there is a lack of knowledge and willingness surrounding treatment of these illnesses.

“Years gone by, people used to assume that mental illnesses are very mysterious and due to various things that people do to you, so there is a certain stigma attached to mental illness,” – – Dr Maureen Irons-Morgan told the Jamaica Star.

There is even the problem of persons living with these illnesses seeking medical or psychological from professionals as they have negative attitudes toward them accepting that they have a mental disorder. However, results from a study conducted show that Jamaican adolescents are more susceptible to seek professional psychological help than their elders.

“Sometimes we want to talk to someone who can make proper sense of what’s going on and we’re too poor to even do therapy. The least you’re paying for 30 minutes of a professional’s time is $4,000, but how can I use 4/5 k telling someone my problems when I’m not sure where my next meal is coming from.” – Anonymous Jamaican youth.

The Ministry of Health in Jamaica has implemented a ‘Mental Health Programme/Policy Initiative’ which is said to “promote good mental health, prevention of mental health disorders and provision of a comprehensive range of services for all patients affected by mental health disorders across the lifespan”. The Ministry of Health also has a division known as the Mental Health Unit which is responsible to develop and implement policies to address the issue of mental health and the prevention and treatment of mental disorders across the lifespan.

“We will be looking at dignity in mental health in various sectors including education, labour, national security, and justice. We want to explore more adequately the mental health issues in different areas. We want persons to be more aware of mental health issues and the need to treat persons who suffer from mental illnesses with dignity.” – Dr Maureen Irons-Morgan, in an Interview with the Jamaica Information Service.

In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported the mental health care expenditure by the health departments within the government amounted to 6% of which 80% is directed to mental hospitals.

“Within the ministry, we have been making a lot of effort to improve on this through mental health promotional activities. We have also done a lot in terms of integrating mental health services into general health services at all different levels. This helps to take away from the stigma and make it easier for persons who are experiencing mental illness to seek help.” – Dr Maureen Irons-Morgan told the Jamaica Star.

It is reported that 108,000 Jamaicans (4% of the population) were treated by mental health professionals for mental illnesses across the island in 2015. The most prevalent mental disorders in Jamaica are schizophrenia and depression. Depression in Jamaica aligns with global trends where 25.6% of females and 14.8% males suffer from depression.

“Schizophrenia is the most prevalent and the most severe of all the disorders and that can be seen in both children and adults. Depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders are also prevalent mental illness, which also come with suicidal thoughts.” –  Dr Pearnel Bell told the Jamaica Star.

In 2015, there were 2,500 reported cases of child and adolescent disorders treated at public health clinics in Jamaica. These statistics were so shocking that the Ministry of Health implemented a mental health task force to monitor and aid in decrease of the problem. The Ministry has acknowledged that there are many young people living with mental issues that have gone undiagnosed and untreated; children as young as three years old are affected by issues with mental health and require help.

Psychologists also find that the behavior of children and youth are often misinterpreted as being rude or they are labeled as ‘problem children’ when in truth they are suffering with a mental health disorder.

“A lot of the times, children who live in traumatic situations, their circumstances may not be known by the school. So you can have a child living with a man who is a beater of his or her mother, and many children have lost a relative because of murder” – Dr. Karen Richards, psychologist, in an interview.

Mental Health and Youth in Jamaica

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It is also observed that the out of the ordinary behavior such as lack of motivation, apathy can be misinterpreted as being lazy, or even cutting themselves and substance abuse are one of the results of mental disorders prevalent among children.

“When somebody is psychotic, often, they are suspicious of people around them and withdraw, and that could be taken as them being antisocial and even lazy. [With cutting] we suspect it might be related to a personality disorder, and sometimes, young people cut as a way of taking their attention away from their emotional pain, so now they focus on a physical manifestation of pain… The young person may have a prior mental health problem and then use some kind of drug in order to dampen the symptom of that mental health problem.” – Dr. Karen Richards, psychologist, in an interview.

The stressors of life can take a toll on one’s mental health. The Youth Information Centers (YIC) provide many tips on taking care of your mental health and also dealing with mental health issues. These tips include: eating well and exercising; sleeping adequately; dealing with problems instead of keeping it to yourself; and setting goals for your life, to name a few. Regarding dealing with mental health issues, the YIC suggest not panicking; acknowledging the problem; accepting support; and talking with a friend or someone you trust; and seeking advice from a professional, among others. There are a lot of other alternatives and interventions that you can administer on your own which will help you with treatable mental disorders like mild depression and anxiety that with proper research you can find.

Possible Reasons Youth Are Reluctant To Talk About Their Mental Health:

  1. Expense – It is too expensive to go to a mental health professional, and not many youth have access to insurance or have the money to sustain themselves and their mental disorder at the same time. Youth suggest that programmes and interventions be implemented to offset the cost or give youth more access to mental health aid.
  1. Stigma attached to mental health – The stigma that you are “mad” or “possessed” is still a mentality of some of the youth in Jamaica. Sensitizing the youth will thus aid in the decrease of this stigma and open avenues for those who really need help.

“ “Is duppy de pon him”, “Is the sins of him and his generations cause it”, “Is because him take up the world on him head” were some of the reasons I got from my elders which got me searching for real answers. Some 15 years later, I am still not a doctor, but I am in the helping profession with a specialization in mental health.” – Chevelle Campbell.

  1. Don’t want to be a burden – Having a mental illness unknowingly is already quite hard for some to deal with, so in turn they don’t want to be a “burden” to others so they just avoid talking about their issues with friends, family, strangers and even professionals.

“At times I do struggle. I can be hard to live with or to be around when I get this way and I know it. I try my best to control it and most of the time I succeed. I manage to get on top of it and control thing’s but at times I break.” – Anonymous Jamaican youth.

  1. Lack of Trust – Plain and simple, some youth do not trust the professionals who sit across from them in a session, they fear that the confidentiality agreement will be broken. This is possibly as a result of previously confiding in a church member, pastor, or other professional who has “told out their business”.

“We can ignore this all we want, but these are real issues, man! We can’t even confide in Church Pastors anymore, because they’re going to share our business with sister deaconess and sister sue will give us the judgy eyes, first Sunday at Church, because she knows all our goddamn business so worst we aren’t going to go to a complete stranger to tell out our business at some seminar or write a study on us.” – Anonymous Jamaican youth.

  1. Fear of being judged – Youth fear being judged on a daily basis, as they have to deal with constantly striving for acceptance through social media. This is also brought into the sessions with mental health professionals or counsellors who they fear will judge them as they divulge their soul and deepest thoughts to a stranger.
  1. Timespan Between Sessions – Youth fear that, for instance, they see the counsellor today, they won’t get to see them again for weeks or months after which the problem would have gotten worse.

“I think our guidance counsellors are really up to their necks because the ratio is 1:600 in terms of guidance counsellors to students, so we have a real serious shortage there.” – Linton Weir, Principal of Old Harbour High and President of the Association of Principals and Vice-principals in an interview.

  1. Lack of professionals available for treating mental health and not just counselling – Youth suggest more professionals be stationed in universities to treat persons with mental health issues and provide them with interventions and therapy.

“We need people to specialize in these areas so we can help the basic school and preschools identify problems and help the children,” – Dr Yvonne Bailey-Davidson, consultant psychiatrist in an interview with the Jamaica Gleaner.

Also increase the capacity of guidance counsellors and counsellors at the university level, through training, to manage this need and to also be aware of when to refer a person with mental health problems to a mental health professional.

“We have been sending our children to the Child Guidance Clinics and, sometimes, we complain that the waiting list is too long, so we have to come up with alternate strategies to ensure that together we work for the benefit of our children,” Mrs. Brooks in an interview with Jamaica Information Service regarding training for mental health.

  1. Lack of knowledge on the subject at hand – Sadness is sometimes loosely mistaken as depression; some persons lack the knowledge of the problem at hand and as such might be reluctant to go to a professional with a problem and find out it isn’t a problem and end up wasting their money and time. Education of the subject be it through seminars or mandatory courses which will be implemented into the curriculum at the secondary and tertiary level could increase awareness.

“I also know that my elders were wrong. Mental illness is not due to demon possession or a result of sins that one or their family members commit. It is caused by a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors. I can now inform people that mental illnesses happen at all ages and stages in life. Autism, ADD and ADHD are mental illnesses usually first diagnosed in children. Anorexia and Bulimia affects mostly teenagers, especially teenage girls and Alzheimer’s affects older persons.” – Chevelle Campbell.

  1. Lack of support – Some youth have the support of their friends and families, but others really have no one so they struggle with this illness solely by themselves. This makes it more difficult for them to seek help as if they are used to coping alone, they will not want to ask for help or acknowledge that they have an issue with mental health. 

“I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks and severe depression I am not ashamed of it anymore and it’s not nice. People don’t believe me when I tell them because I am always happy and laughing round them and try to make others laugh. If you see me and I am quiet or don’t speak, I’m not upset with you nor have you upset me, I also do not mean to be rude, I may just need a minute to myself or a hug. So please if you are my friend just bear with me.” – Anonymous Jamaican youth.

Seminars and workshops for families and friends which provide learning, awareness and guidance on mental health and persons with mental disorders will aid in persons being more disposed to seek help.

“It means that you have to give support to families and parents, so they understand that they have to be concerned about their children’s physical health, and also know how to raise a child in a mentally healthy way and emotionally healthy way.” – Carol Narcisse, co-founder of the mental health support group MENSANA in an interview.

  1. Fear that the problem is more serious than one let’s on – No one wants to hear that they have a mental illness and need medication so this also holds true for youth. They will rather stay home and live with it and downplay the problem than go to a doctor and be told they have a mental disorder.

“So many of us are unknowingly depressed and fall into so many traps because we’re just trying to run away from ourselves. We don’t know how to deal with the ‘demons’ that haunt us and we don’t want to go to a doctor and end up having schizophrenia or something degenerative that will ruin our lives.” – Anonymous Jamaican youth.

What kind of steps is the government making to help young people battling with mental illnesses? Who are the ones out here standing up for the youths? Mental health is important.

By Alexandra Daley



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