Own experience pushes former model to change perception of mental illness

Observer senior writer

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

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WHILE walking home from church with her mother in 1984, four-year-old Shakerea Lawla noticed a homeless man in the vicinity of the building and was curious about his depressing state.

“I was four years old but I remember asking her why he was dirty, why he was upset sometimes, where does he live, and where is his mom? She explained that he wasn't well and that he had nowhere to live,” Lawla reflected. “The image and conversation has stuck with me, and the horror that 34 years later I still see the same man in the same condition outside the same church,” she added. “Since being sensitised at age four I developed an awareness of the less fortunate and later a passion to help.

In the ensuing years, Shakerea Lawla has faced her own challenges. She told the Jamaica Observer that she has had “three psychological episodes”, the first at age 28.

Lawla said that she realised early that she was “different”. She did not interact well with peers and went through “feelings of why I'm alive and the wish of not being alive”.

“At age 14, I decided to talk to my family doctor about how I was feeling because I was on the verge of taking my life and I knew if I did I'd have inadvertently killed my mom,” she recalled. “I discovered that I had severe anxiety issues and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) in my late teens. After a psychotic episode triggered by stress and being administered the wrong medication I was diagnosed with bipolar and schizophrenia in my late 20s,” she said.

Experts say depression or schizophrenia can result in low self-esteem, shame, and even suicide. For Lawla, a former model, the experience has strengthened her resolve.

“My aim is to humanise the labels of mental illnesses and gradually strip the stigma and taboo attached through awareness campaigns and fund-raising events. Since meeting Joy Crooks (a co-founder of Committee for the Upliftment of the Mentally Ill) in 2005 and learning of their work with the mentally ill and homeless in Montego Bay, I've created a similar organisation in Kingston and name it H O M E (Home of Mental Experts). My ultimate aim will be to service each parish in Jamaica by opening an organisation that cares for the mentally ill and homeless,” she explained.

In 2013, Lawla established The Shakerea Project “to assist existing NGOs in their plight for protecting and servicing the less fortunate”.

With today being observed as World Mental Health Day, she is determined to get her message across in a country where the mentally-challenged are still referred to as “mad people”.

Having first-hand knowledge and experiences of living with mental health issues I believe I can contribute positively to raising awareness with the aim of improving the treatment facilities for the mentally-challenged,” she said. “Currently, our mental health facilities are struggling to provide the proper care and services for patients. It doesn't help that it's the norm to turn a blind eye to the mentally-challenged. We are outcasts written off by society as being unable to contribute positively. I want to change this perception by creating rehabilitation centres islandwide for vulnerable individuals with mental health issues.”

In June, Dr Diana Thorburn, director of research at the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, released alarming statistics that the ratio of psychiatrists to patients in Jamaica stood at 1:1,582.

“The international standard is 1:150. We are far outside of the international standard with respect to the mental health services of our population,” Dr Thorburn said in her address to the Safety and Justice for Jamaican Children forum in Kingston.

As she prepares to launch the next phase of her campaign to help the mentally-challenged, Lawla is aware of the disparity between specialists and patients. This is why, she said, a support system is critical.

“Family support is extremely important and I've been blessed with amazing older siblings, without them I'd be dead or living on the streets. Loving and caring for someone with mental health issues is quite difficult; it involves experiencing them at their absolute worst and actively choosing to love and care for them throughout their trauma,” she said. “I believe most of the mentally ill we see on the streets are there because they don't have the support of family.”

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