On Friday, April 7 Kingston’s Emancipation Park was lively and bouncing with lots of Jamaicans working out, running, enjoying themselves. It’s World Health Day, and the Jamaica Moves campaign of the Ministry of Health had kicked off. Minister Chris Tufton himself was seen looking very energetic on stage, while a pretty large crowd worked out happily in the space below.
There are so many health priorities for Jamaica, competing for space. The Ministry has picked on this one, and it is of course terribly important to do something about our obesity epidemic. But the global theme for World Health Day 2017 is not one to jump up and down about. It is also one Jamaicans cannot afford to ignore: Depression.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that over 300 million people globally are living with depression – an increase of over 18 per cent between 2005 and 2015, just ten years. It is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. More than 80 per cent of this disease burden (yes, depression is a disease like any other) is borne by low income/middle income countries. Can you imagine the problems among refugees and displaced people, those suffering from war and civil strife or living in poverty? This seems to clash with the results of a survey I discovered online showing that many developed countries, which generally have high ratings in terms of social order, also have their citizens taking large quantities of anti-depressants (OECD Health Statistics 2016). Perhaps this shows, however, that people in less developed countries have less access to the treatment they need.
And yet – despite these startling facts – mental health is something that is, more often than not, swept under the carpet. There is a particular stigma about it in many countries, including Jamaica. It’s not a comfortable topic. It does not help that our media headlines and reports (reflecting the careless public references) often refer to a “mad man” or a “mad woman,” conjuring up images of a crazy, out of control person shouting at the sky. Mental health is, of course, far more complex and difficult than that, and it’s often something that Jamaicans (and their loved ones and carers) have to deal with quietly, almost secretly. Nowadays, although it’s generally much easier to talk about some health issues openly (there is no great to-do if someone says, “Yes, I’ve had cancer, but I’m recovering”) this does not apply to mental health. It is hard to talk publicly about one’s own depression.
Why is this? Well, firstly – when you tell people you suffer from depression, they often misinterpret it. One reaction might be: “Well, what are you depressed about?” suggesting that it is not a condition, but actually just a little problem that will go away.
There’s also the (perhaps unspoken) sense from others that if you are depressed, you are not able to cope with life. You are likely to burst into tears, or throw a tantrum. This makes you an unreliable person. Can we remember though that depression is an illness, not a character weakness? Just like any other illness, it can happen to anyone.
Or, there is the perception that if you are dealing with your depression, you are some kind of drug addict, living in a semi-zoned out state. There is also often a kind of denial – “Oh no, you can’t be depressed. You are always such a happy person!” This suggests that – well, depression is some kind of fraud. You might be just kidding us. You’re not depressed!
This WHO video: I had a black dog. His name was depression (“An equal opportunity mongrel”!) describes vividly how depression feels. It also tells how one can tame that dog, keeping him on a leash (he is still there but he gets smaller, eventually). By the way, did you know that Winston Churchill, the courageous wartime leader of Britain during very dark days, frequently referred to his own depression, which he called his “black dog”? I don’t think he coined the phrase, however – and of course, his incredible legacy remains.
Now, let’s go back to the beginning – all that energy in Emancipation Park last Friday. There is a connection. We always talk about the “mind-body connection” but are somehow quick to dismiss it, especially in relation to mental health. There is absolutely no doubt that regular exercise helps strengthen you mentally. It eases stress, improves our memory, helps us sleep better and just makes us feel better all round – whether it’s a heavy workout in the gym or an enjoyable walk with a neighbour or partner. Exercise can also really ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety (which is a separate condition, by the way – not to be confused). It helps increase the activity of certain neurotransmitters called endorphins. Increasing your heart rate while exercising also gets more blood circulating and flowing to the brain. These are undeniably good things!
I would also add that deep breathing, yoga and meditation really, really helps. Getting your body moving is one thing – but hey, there goes the “mind-body” thing again.
There are 1,000 ways of dealing with depression – depending partly, I think, on one’s own personal circumstances – but the primary advice would always be: Get Help. You are not alone. The struggle may continue for a while, but you will begin to feel better with the right support and assistance. Believe me.
So, where in Jamaica can you seek (and find) help, if you are depressed? There are some really good people working hard to improve the quality of life and health of those living with mental illness, and advocating on their behalf…
Mensana, founded in 1977, is a nationally recognised mental health support and advocacy organisation for families affected by mental illness. Its motto is: For a healthy mind, body and spirit. Support groups meet at 11 Caledonia Avenue, Kingston 10 from 10:00 am to 12:00 noon every second Saturday of the month, except in August and October. Mensana offers practical and moral support. No formal membership is required, but the meetings are open to those who care for or live with someone living with mental illness; those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and are in treatment; resource people working in the field of mental health; and those who would like to understand more about the issue. You can contact Mensana at (876) 340-8837; firstname.lastname@example.org; mailing address ℅ 46 Lady Musgrave Road, Kingston 10. The organisation is on Facebook at Mensana Jamaica
And by the way, Mensana also has a social enterprise, Petals ‘N’ Roots Ja which provides financial contributions to the group, as well as skills training and occupational solutions for persons coping with mental health challenges. It’s a one-stop source of plants, cut flowers, gifts, unique garden accents and a range of floral services, situated inside Hi-Lo supermarket, Liguanea Lane Plaza, 121 Old Hope Road, Kingston.
Face Depression is a fairly new and youthful Caribbean movement that seeks to shed light and raise awareness of depression. Its aim is also to reduce the stigma – and the misperceptions – by introducing us to Jamaicans who are living with depression and having them tell their stories. You can contact them at email@example.com and the campaign website is here.
The Jamaica Mental Health Advocacy Network seeks to raise awareness and reduce stigma surrounding mental illness, while also offering counselling and training services. It is a group of young professionals involved in the fields of Mental Health, Social Work, Community Development and Advocacy. JaMHAN seeks to be a nationally representative network that has a sustained and transformative impact on the provision of, access to and awareness of mental health services in Jamaica. You can contact them at (876) 569 4192; firstname.lastname@example.org; and on Twitter @jamhan_ja.
I do hope you will find this article of interest, and that you will share the information with anyone who may need it.