Having a Mental Illness and Being West Indian

Being West Indian/Caribbean is a special thing, our people are culturally bonded regardless of their island (though they can also be relentlessly patriotic). We share a common history, similar foods, similar music, beautiful beaches, beautiful people, similar upbringings (broughtupsy), a similar timeline of immigration to North America…and well we also share the same prejudices, same misconceptions, same stigmas and same ignorance.

If you think mental illness is frowned upon and stigmatized in the black community overall, this deepens even further in the West Indian culture. For us, mental illness is not a thing, it does not exist. Period.

When it became clear that there was something direly wrong with me at 15 years old, it was very much so…a time of confusion. Like what is this? My Jamaican father could not comprehend. He could not deny my symptoms that’s for sure, but the diagnosis, seemed unfathomable to him (from my p.o.v). Where did it, the depression, come from? And I believe this was for several reasons.

My father was an immigrant, who came to Canada, did post-secondary and proceeded to raise four children and work very hard to not only provide for them but put them on the path of success. My father was very strict when it came to our academics and aided/pushed us wherever possible. I have very vivid memories of reading aloud to him over my lunch breaks as a small child, him correcting my fumbled pronunciations. Long story short, my siblings and I all succeeded in our academics. He had done what he came to this country to do, his children now had better opportunities…so what the hell was this (my words not his)? What did I have to be depressed about?

To the immigrant parent there is the reasoning that, if you have food, water and shelter (AND excelling in academics) and allowance (the lucky ones, I was one of those, $20 weekly when I reached high school), what is there to complain about? My Dad still provides this advice even now, after 18 years of us growing through my illness and him stepping up and becoming a phenomenal support. His advice is, if you have your basic human needs satisfied, let go of the rest. But life is not that simple. I had my own personal traumas to deal with and the modern world.

For me his academic pressure did not mix well with my neuroses and other traumas happening in my life, something he could not have foreseen. Trauma + pressure + neurosis = breakdown city. For him, once we were done our degrees, live your life! That was his thinking. I got you to this point, do you after undergrad. He did not outright pressure us to go beyond a undergrad, no doctor or lawyer pressure BUT that being said, to me that was implied and in 2008 (and present day) what the hell you gonna do with just an undergrad? And what the hell was the point of me studying so bloody hard for the last 12 years?

Now that I am writing this blog post, I’m realizing there are so many more topics to pull into this conversation. It occurs to me the life of a young boy in Jamaica in the 1950s was much different than a young woman in North America in the 2000s. This next bit is going to sound selfish, but…I mean, you immigrated here to give me a good life…and part of that was so I could have and address these type of problems such as mental illness. Problems, our people were probably outright ignoring and sweeping under the rug back home, perhaps because yes, they had bigger problems. Does that make any sense? I don’t want to sound like a first-world-problem-crying-millennial.

This last piece I will mention revolves around religion. I did not encounter this trope (though my mother does end most of our conversations on a religious note) however I can imagine that it is a challenge for other West Indians. The answer of God and prayer. Feeling depressed? Something mentally ailing you? Pray to Jesus. West Indians are highly religious people, most of whom bring their children to church every weekend. There is no therapy, no medication, Jesus will heal you. Now we all know, that just isn’t the case.

The last reason I will discuss for why West Indians brush aside the notion of mental illness is because of privacy and reputation. I see this in many immigrants. You don’t want your business out on the streets and seeking professional help in a form such as therapy where you literally talk about your life (including your parents) well you’re pretty much bringing shame to the family.

I do not wish I grew up differently, with the cons come the pros in any situation. With my illness came a better understanding for my immediate family and West Indian friends and hope for the next generation.

*Amanda Seales (big fan) does a great job mentioning it in her podcast Small Doses with Amanda Seales episode #36 Side Effects of Being West Indian at 11:32. She actually does a really good job of describing what it’s like growing up West Indian and will make you laugh at the same time.

Sidenote: West Indian parents are extremely loving, it just…comes out rough sometimes!

Are there factors in your culture that make mental illness a difficult topic? 

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