A call to be mindful, T&T

2016 June 29: Trinidad Guardian:– Caroline C Ravello is a strategic communications and media practitioner with over 30 years of proficiency. She holds an MA in Mass Communications and is pursuing the MSc in Public Health (MPH) from the UWI. Write to: mindful.tt@gmail.com

When we got together in St Ann’s two weeks ago at the Talk & TEA (Think, Explore and Act) event our aim was an intimate conversation among people with a vested interest in the necessary national tolerance of, and compulsory interventions for, mental illness in T&T.

talk and tea posterJune 18, 2016, St Ann’s, Port of Spain, T&T

With a vision of the road ahead, we were looking to partner with a multidisciplinary team of professionals to begin to work collaboratively on an holistic approach to mental health and mental illness in T&T. We hoped that together we could begin to engage in formulating a national culturally appropriate response to mental illness, given the ever-increasing incidents of economic, social, and political challenges.

Facilitated by Dr Yansie Rolston, a leading international disability and mental health advisor, renowned psychiatrist Gerard Hutchinson, The UWI professor in psychiatry and I, the programme also provided for participants to share the experience of Jillian Scott, who told of her son’s, and indeed, her family’s struggles with Bipolar 1 disorder.

Johann Mohammed, rehabilitated and renowned jewelry and fashion designer and owner of the African Ark label, also gave a first-person account of his struggles with substance abuse. Recognising substance abuse as mental illness, he shared his resolved position to be well with a determination that established him among us as a wellspring of hope for those in the struggle.

What was the most compelling activity of the afternoon though, was listening to the perspectives of those of our guests who took time to share what they view/viewed as the leading issue in their area of expertise or service.

From among the group, there were expert contributions on child sexual abuse and the need for appropriate interventions for perpetrators who are minors, substance abuse in the workplace, juvenile substance abusers, employment opportunities for the mentally ill, safe spaces for treatment for intervention and care, and much more.

Jillian scottJillian Scott passionately told Alan’s story.

A common thread throughout was tolerance, which presented itself in what seemed to be accounts of pervasive ignorance about mental illness and the unfortunate consequence of discrimination, prejudice and isolation from families and institutions, including the workforce.

Advocate Nicole Cowie, a member of the organising committee, spoke to the labour and employment issue saying that for her, as for me, with our status being public we remain unemployed despite, according to her, “our qualifications, smarts and competence.”

Cowie commended Mohammed for carving out his workspace, suggesting, in T&T’s unending seasons of ignorance and misinformation, it is the only solution if those who are mentally ill and dare to disclose did not decide to “live on a disability grant.”

My colleague in public health, Dr Theresa Yorke Metzger, a dental surgeon, succinctly married ignorance with intolerance, when she posited that all of us understand something about physical illness but mostly are clueless about what we should do to make people who are mentally ill feel or be better. “So,” she said, “We hide them away and those who are ill also learn to hide their illness.”

That statement was in keeping with the contributions from Vision on Mission which spoke to the stigmatisation of the vulnerable in our society and how that behaviour promotes inequities and segregation, and produces dysfunctional organisations.

Scott’s telling of her son Alan’s painful story brought home the point about our lack of investment in care/healing for the mentally ill in T&T. Her family has had to seek therapeutic attention in the US in order to bring about the healing calm Alan needs.

But what of those who cannot access such interventions? And more so, what would be T&T’s position if we were to experience increases in mental illness – clinical depression, work-related stress, interpersonal violence, substance abuse, and so on – associated with our prevailing issues of austerity, and unemployment?

This dialogue reinforced our concerns as facilitators and heightened our commitment to changing T&T’s mental health/illness landscape. There is so much that must be done to impact on health overall, but especially psychosocial health/wellbeing. These interventions must be made in order to maintain the status of those who are well (prevention) and also to provide solutions for the mentally ill (treatment).

It’s a comprehensive intervention that speaks to our public institutions, as psychiatrist Dr Varma Deyalsingh suggested from knowledge of St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital with which he has been affiliated since 1987. It’s about establishing private institutions: “safe spaces, “healing centres”, and facilities for alternative treatments, such as the Scott family has experienced in North America.

It is, foremost in the mind of Prof Hutchinson, “a need for our society to get rid of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude; a time to realise ‘they’ are just like us and that everyone can develop a mental illness at some time in their life.”

“Perhaps if we educate our government, our country, communities, workplaces, and families we may be able to find more empathy,” someone suggested, and I prayed silently that the nation’s watchword “tolerance” would be lived out and I would be here to experience it.

round up talk and tea

Nicole Cowie, from left, Caroline C Ravello, Prof Gerard Hutchinson, Dr Yansie Rolston and Johan Mohammed


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