“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” ― Bill Clinton
The stories coming out of the Transformed Life Ministry rehabilitation centre in Arouca are disturbing on many levels, with the most poignant of them, to me, being the flippant manner in which we treat with mental illness in TT. The images of the people who were kept at that facility and the conditions under which they lived are harrowing to say the least, and the fact that people were casually circulating these images on social media is cause for great concern. As far as I am concerned, it robbed those people of the little dignity they had left and only added to the negative effects of the stigma that is still associated with mental illness.
The thing about mental illness is that it is does not discriminate. People of any age, gender, race and social standing can be afflicted by it because there are a wide variety of causes. Childhood trauma, social disadvantage, unemployment or job loss, domestic violence, bullying, neurological conditions and lifestyle habits such as drug use are among the many factors that can affect a person's mental health. Those images could have been of any one of us under similar circumstances. Would we have liked it if we were put on exhibit while we were at our lowest point?
As a journalist I try to expose my ten-year-old to as many current events as possible, but I chose to sit this one out because I felt it would add nothing of value to his life, at least not at this stage. He is aware of the existence of mental illness and the effects it can have on people. He has witnessed homeless people in their "natural habitat" and the manner in which they behave, and we have discussed some of the factors that may have contributed to their situation, among them mental illness. He knows about my experience with post post-partum depression and that I had to seek professional help to deal with it. It was not the most comfortable of discussions, but I felt it had to happen. I believe in leading by example, and if I expect him to come to me to discuss things that are bothering him, then I should do the same.
“Show your child it’s okay to acknowledge feelings by talking about your own,” advises Dr Eli Lebowitz, director of the Programme for Anxiety Disorders at the Yale Child Study Centre. In an article published on nbcnews.com, Dr Lebowitz said "Part of talking about mental health means being transparent (as appropriate) about how you maintain yours. If you take as prescribed medication for depression, or see a therapist, or even if you just do yoga to stay sane — share that you do this with your kids to stay mentally fit," as this helps in breaking part of the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Of course, being the child he is, he had and still has many, many questions, which opened up opportunities for discussions on mental health in general. I stick a pin in the questions I don't immediately have the answers to and I do the research, so the conversation is ongoing. And these conversations give me the opportunities to ask questions of my own, which allows me insight into his mental health. For while there are times when children may simply be overwhelmed by the numerous activities in which they are involved, chances are that the behaviour they display may very well be symptoms of mental illness.
Dr Lebowitz suggests, for concerns over possible anxiety ask them:
Is anything worrying you?
What are you doing during recess and who are you spending time with?
How is your body feeling? Are you having stomach or headaches?
Is it easy for you to fall asleep?
Is something making you scared?
Do you have any problem paying attention?
If you suspect depression, ask:
Do you feel sad?
Have you been feeling cranky?
Do you know what’s bothering you?
Who are your friends now and what do you do with them?
Do you sometimes wish you weren’t alive at all?
“Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions,” Lebowitz said. “Asking about thoughts of death, for example, shows it’s okay for your child to share with you; never asking shows them that it’s not.
For possible cases of bullying, ask:
Does bullying happen in your school? Have you seen anyone being bullied?
Does anyone bother you at school? Has anyone hit you?
Has anything really frightening happened to you?
Just as we take care of our children's physical health, taking care of and talking to them about their mental well-being should also be a priority. Mental illness is real, the effects of it are real and remaining silent about it will not change the fact.