No Joke Ting: A Discussion on Mental Health in Jamaica

Every parish and even town back home has its local “mad-man,” usually a destitute man who, for whatever terrible life circumstance, seems to have lived on the street for what seems like a lifetime. We make jokes, with and about him, and somehow always seem to make mention of the Bellevue asylum. But all jokes aside, have we ever wondered what could have been of this so-called “mad-man” if he sought some real medical attention? We are quick to go to the hospital for any “serious” illness, but what makes mental illness not serious? Mental disorders are not necessarily issues that can be prayed away and we would be a better people for addressing how mental health affects our people today.

D.L Samuels

D.L Samuels

Shanice Douglas is the founder of Witted Roots: a Jamaica-based platform for millennial women of colour to address and reflect on issues of self-care, self-awareness and mental health. From her online docu-series to her Roots Reflections Journal, Douglas is helping lead this revolution of Jamaican young adults being critical of the discussion, or lack thereof, of mental health in Jamaica and its diaspora.

Douglas’ passion and drive for self-care stems from the fact that mental health isn’t just about severe illness; it is about how you live your everyday life. Douglas notes that while these misconceptions about mental health are still prevalent amongst our people today, there is a growing group of millennials who are now coming to terms with the importance of one’s daily mental well-being. Older generations often feel like millennials are entitled and, as Shanice notes, “the communication isn’t there [nor is] the willingness to understand” younger points of view. There are external stressors and pressures put on our youth - to help take care of the family, to be beacons of hope when we excel in our classes and go on to attend university - that it is often a lot of bear. Younger generations are starting to become aware of these things and create dialogues and open spaces where it is okay to come to terms with your anxiety, depression, or just overall feelings of being overwhelmed.

Much to the dismay of our parents and grandparents, millennials are exploring our interests and doing so in new and intuitive ways. “We don’t have things figured out because we are still products of [older generations]”, as Douglas points out, “but we are trying to fix it and make people realize that for generations you guys thought you had to work in a bank or in a cubicle…but we are realizing that you can be creative and make an impact.” This confusion is what leads to misunderstandings and even dysfunction in Jamaican households.

Douglas also notes the power of language when talking about mental health in Jamaican society. “When you say a word like ‘depression,’ there is a weight to it, but not necessarily the right weight.” Young adults’ understanding of mental health is rising, but it has been slower to trickle down to Jamaica’s more rural areas. In order to help spread the word, Douglas hopes to one day have traveling self-care workshops for young girls in these areas.

The issue of mental health is one that is largely intertwined with Jamaica’s history as a formerly colonized nation. Books like Stacey Patton’s Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America and other research puts into context a serious concept that Douglas explores in her work: transgenerational trauma. As Black people, we are living today, as Douglas points out, “the products of slaves in this country [Jamaica] and we are also the products of imperialists who pillaged the island and are still feeling it in more ways than one.” Today, that trauma often takes the form of poverty affecting many of Jamaica’s people. We are constantly consumed with hustling, working multiple jobs, and fulfilling economic demand that aspects of our physical and mental health fall by the wayside.

For Douglas, the best way to question these issues is self-reflection. Ask yourself who, what, or why you are feeling the way you do or have the reactions you have. We have to first help ourselves in order to solve these issues and it is best to do it sooner rather than later. There are a growing number of resources available, be it social media discussions, online podcasts, or seeking out professional help. We cannot simply just snap ourselves out of negative mental health and thus, we must reform the way we talk about it to future generations.

To learn more about Witted Roots and Shanice Douglas’s platform, follow her organization on Twitter and Instagram.