Bipolar Disorder Stigma in Jamaica

By Cheyenne Benwarisingh

I live in Jamaica, a country rich with diverse ethnicities, personalities, and beliefs. As unique as the people of my country are, we all have one commonality, and that is the stigmatization of persons with mental disorders.

Very rarely will you hear a conversation about mental disorders. It’s almost as uncommon to hear about the practices of psychiatrists and psychologists. They exist, but people just don’t talk about them in the open. However, we are all ignoring a very ominous reality. There are financial, social and political problems in Jamaica which gives birth to corruption and unequal distribution of resources. This leads to financial problems, abandonment of children, alcoholism, sexual, mental and physical abuse of both adults as well as children. I live in an unhealthy society, riddled with issues, and these issues give rise to many mental illnesses. However, ignorance as well as fear of stigma prevents individuals from seeking the help they need.

I have an aunt who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For many years prior to her diagnosis, my family knew my aunt had a problem; however, because of ignorance combined with the fear of being stigmatized by outsiders, no one encouraged her to go to the doctor. Looking back to those years, I wish I had tried to help her, because I could tell she was in dire need of help. She had what I liked to call “highs” and “lows.” One minute she’d be bouncing with laughter, and before I knew it she would lock herself in her room, either yelling from anger of past events, or she’d be crying from something that she didn’t even know herself or couldn’t quite put into words. It wasn’t like this all the time though, most times she would be calm, however looking back I realized she wasn’t calm, she was just sad. As child, like the rest of my family, I did nothing to help, I jumped on the bandwagon and called her names such as “crazy” or “weird” and whenever I did try to comfort her I told her hurtful words such as, “It’s just a phase, you’ll get over it soon.”At that age I didn’t know that ten years down the line, those words would come back to haunt me.

I left my aunt and went to live with my parents for six years. Those years were the worst of my life, and without a doubt, damaged me mentally. I couldn’t live with my parents anymore, so they sent me back to my aunt. She had been going to the doctor, so she was notably better when I returned. At that time, I had a myriad of problems, which was later diagnosed as depression. Among my family, I became known as the new “crazy” person.  I will probably never now what it is like to live with bipolar disorder, but I definitely understood a smidgeon of what my aunt felt all those years, the feelings of stigmatization.

My illness wasn’t a stigma to me; I speak of it proudly. I describe it as battle scars, I went through a situation, and I fought through it. Somewhere along the way, I developed depression; I fought through that as well and I survived. I also did it while facing stigma and prejudices, including people that acted as if I had some unknown disease and if I dared cough in the same room as them they would catch it and die instantly. That is the type of stigma persons with mental illnesses experience in Jamaica. I know my struggle with depression and stigmatization; however, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how my aunt felt while she was struggling with bipolar, combined with the way people treated her. To this day she is still treated terribly, if we happen to be at a wedding and she’s crying tears of joy along with everyone else, there will be persons huddling and whispering, “oh it’s come back again, I thought she was cured.”

In Jamaica, there is a persistent stigma attached to mental illnesses. This comes from ignorance and a lack of understanding. I long for the day that we can get to the stage in Jamaica where we treat mental illnesses as an illness that can affect anyone. If only society could show care and respect to individuals with mental illness instead of abusing them, it would make those persons’ struggle a little easier

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