In December 2005, I experienced what one would consider to be a turning point in my life. A good friend of mine had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia. In a flash, it seemed as if all hell had broken loose, and we were living in the twilight zone.
At that time, I was pursuing my undergraduate degree in Business with a minor in Psychology. I was already contemplating the idea of going into Psychology as a career choice but was still unsure.
As fate would have it, Damian’s mental health crisis, when he was both in and out of his lucid moments, was that pivotal moment for me. Damian reached out to me for help and expressed his fears about his diagnosis. When he was experiencing his delusions I was also there listening to him explain why he thought he was the reincarnation of Jesus and that people were coming to “get” him.
I also saw first-hand the level of misinformation and stigma surrounding mental illness as rumors started to swirl among our peer group; “mad”, “crazy”, “psychotic” were the words thrown around. “Maybe he had smoked some bad weed,” some thought.
I know my friends did not say these things with any malicious intent but instead spoke from a place of fear and misunderstanding.
Unfortunately, my dear friend committed suicide on December 1, 2005, and my life has never been the same since. I took it upon myself to pursue graduate studies in Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling and have never looked back.
I have become a Mental Health Advocate, and I founded the Jamaica Mental Health Advocacy Network (JaMHAN), a group of young professionals who are passionate about raising awareness regarding mental health issues in order to reduce the surrounding stigma. Through our robust social media advocacy efforts, psycho-educational videos and public education campaign, JaMHAN seeks to inform people that mental illness is wide and varied and is not confined to manifestations that end up in murder or suicide.
In Jamaica, there remains a pervasive view that mental illness is due to demon possession and psychological weakness in persons. Persons living with mental illness are still perceived to be mad or crazy. There are persons with biochemical illnesses such as Schizophrenia or Bipolar Depression, persons who struggle with grief such as death of a loved one, persons who endure post-traumatic stress disorder due to sexual abuse or high levels of crime and violence in our country.
I am happy to be a part of this small army locally and internationally that fights for persons living with mental illness, because living is exactly what is happening.
Mental illness is not a death sentence and at some point or another we will all struggle with a mental or emotional issue.
I am thankful to be involved in a global movement of acceptance and self-love.