Why I chose to become a mental health advocate
I have been a mental health patient for close to 25 years, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychotic depression in 1998. My diagnosis is a common type of mental illness, which affects millions of people around the world. If it is not properly treated, managed, and controlled, it can become a “nightmare”, not just for myself but all of whom I come in contact with. Therefore, it is extremely important that mentally ill people like myself stay on top of our treatment programme.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association diagnostic manual, mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions that affect our mood, thinking, and behaviour. Mental health disorders include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and many other disorders as listed in the (DSM-5). Mental illness is more common than an ignorant mind would perceive. One in every six people suffer from some form of mental health condition, with depression being the most common. Mental illness is, therefore, a legitimate part of our human experience.
Throughout history people have been searching for reasons to explain the existence of mental illness. In early societies, it was speculated that demonic possession was the explanation. Many people concluded then that mentally ill people were evil and wicked and should be locked away from the rest of society. Even today, in our society, there are remnants of this unsubstantiated belief. There are many cultures that still believe that mental illnesses reflect a wrongdoing on the part of the family or individual afflicted with the ailment, which, in turn, evokes evil spirits.
Currently, medical and psychological experts have totally rubbished the argument of mental illness being associated with demons or Obeah. Medical science has proven that mental illnesses are caused by interactions of heredity and environmental factors, malfunctioning chemical messengers, predisposition, stress and biological components.
As demonstrated in my own affliction and journey with mental illness, it can be successfully treated, managed, and controlled with the application of medication, prayers, and social support. Mental illness can’t be wished away or cured with “holy water”. As a practising Christian, a mental health patient and advocate, I have always advocated and emphasised the need for mental health patients to stay compliant with our medication. There is healing and miracles in medicine and they can’t be replaced with prayer and fasting; instead, allow one to complement the other. I pray over my medication before taking them.
It is very important to me as a mental health patient and advocate to contextualise my journey with mental illness, which is aimed at inspiring and motivating other mentally ill people who may be struggling and searching for hope. Mental illness is no walk in the park. However, my journey and association with the community of the mentally ill has taught me that the way the society treats people with mental illness is more of a challenge than the actual illness itself. I have seen and experienced a lot over the past two-and-a-half decades. Fortunately for me, with the help of an amazing team at Spalding Mental Health Clinic, colleagues, family, and friends, as well as my own inner strength, fuelled by God’s grace, I don’t look like what I have been through.
I do a lot of public speaking on mental health and oftentimes people tell me that I don’t look or sound like I have schizophrenia and psychotic depression. I look and sound like a regular guy. On the outside, I am a picture of health â€” tall and slim, with smooth-textured skin and when I speak I command respect. People often tell me that I am pleasant, intelligent, and smart, but inside my brain there is a chemical imbalance which accounts for my diagnosis with schizophrenia and psychotic depression.
Mental illness is not a look or sound. If we are compliant with our medication and have social support, we will most likely be able to lead fairly normal lives. Yes, mental illness, like all other illnesses, uniquely affects each individual, but generally speaking, the manifestations reflect much the same.
Mental illness has been around for over 4,000 years, and throughout history the community of the mentally ill has been discriminated against and treated with indifference by the society. Prejudice, stigma, and negative labels are endemic to the lives of people living with mental illness. The social insensitivity and discrimination meted out to mentally ill people have resulted in scandalous rates of joblessness, homelessness, and spouseless living within the community of the mentally ill.
It is time we get serious about creating equity for mentally ill people in the society. We deserve much more than we are currently being served. No other demographic has fallen to such an impoverished state of mind that they turn to garbage for food and literally despise personal hygiene and self-care! If this cry for help doesn’t move us as a society, I don’t know what will.
I have no background in economics, but it is my humble opinion that we can afford to do more for the community of the mentally ill. I wish to make a few proposals as someone directly impacted by mental illness and wish to see improvement in the standard of living of my brothers and sisters who are journeying with the ailment but may not be as fortunate as I am to have a strong support system.
a) Amend the Mental Health Act and insert an “affirmative action” clause which gives incentives to employers who employ a minimum threshold of mentally ill workers.
b) Remove the negative labels and pejoratives in the constitution that refer to mentally ill people as lunatics and imbeciles.
c) Provide low interest loans and grants to mentally ill people to undertake business ventures.
d) Appoint a cadre of mental health patients to serve as mental health ambassadors in the different regions across the island. These ambassadors would be tasked with establishing support groups and forming partnerships with community groups as well as social institutions.
e) Develop a public education programme at the grass roots level aimed at significantly reducing stigma associated with mental illness.
f) Establish at least one transitional centre for the mentally ill in each constituency.
g) Establish an interest-free student loan arrangement for mentally ill people to complete a first degree.
I believe that the preceding, if implemented, will significantly ease the struggles, pain, suffering, and obstacles faced by mentally ill people on a daily basis.
I chose to become a mental health advocate because of what I have seen and experienced as a mentally ill person. I share my journey with the hope that through my effort and example I can influence positive change. It is my hope that discussing and openly talking about mental illness will help to normalise conversations around mental health issues which, in turn, will help eliminate prejudices, stigma, and discrimination.
I want to implore the citizenry to stand up for the mentally ill population. Let us be kind and understanding about the challenges each mentally ill person faces and recognise everyone’s own vulnerability. Sickness does not discriminate and life is about turning tables, rising tides, and changing fortunes.
After over 4,000 years of stigmatisation, abuse, neglect, violation, ostracism, and wrongful judgement, we the mentally ill are demanding a fair chance to lead a normal life. The ladder which the society currently provides is much too short to scale the walls of stigma, prejudice, discrimination, and negative labels. We deserve much more and the society can do better. I know we can do better and I expect that we will.
The word is always love for persons living with mental illness.
Andre’ A O Wellington is a mental health patient and advocate, dean of discipline at Alston High School, and president of the Spalding Citizens’ Association. He is also a justice of the peace. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.