Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a shift in the stigma associated with mental health.
More and more people have shed light on their mental health struggles and sought mental health treatment to manage issues like anxiety and depression.
With the increase in demand, we have seen more therapists on panellists and in the media throughout the region. We have also seen the use of telemedicine and virtual tools to support people and their mental health.
But while a lot has changed, there’s still work to be done to address mental health stigmas and increase mental health awareness, advocacy, and action.
Psychologist, Laura West, MBPsS, based in the United Kingdom with Kittitian-Jamaican roots, shares insights on how we can collectively engage in mental health practices that are accessible, sustainable, and culturally affirming.
Laura is a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS) and has dedicated her passion to the region and Caribbean diaspora after her personal experience with therapy.
“I initially intended to join academia upon completing my master’s degree, however since commencing therapy in March 2021, it became clear to me that pursuing a career in counselling would be far more rewarding. I was fortunate enough to qualify for free psychotherapy through a local charity for black and ethnic minority people and quickly understood the benefits of working with a culturally competent therapist who understood my unique needs”.
How do you see stigma toward mental health playing out in our communities based on your experience?
“Care tends to be centralised within hospitals and psychiatric wards, and the consensus is that those accessing care are experiencing severe psychological imbalances. Many people are hesitant to access care despite their suffering due to these beliefs around therapeutic services. The decentralisation of mental health care away from hospitals and psychiatric wards can reduce stigma and improve access to treatment whether this is therapeutic or medicinal”.
Discomfort in seeking professional help
“Although persons from Caribbean backgrounds tend to pride themselves on their resilient nature, many fail to recognise when they need help”.
Going to therapy has been seen as a last resort for those who are chronically ill. But more persons can amplify the value of therapy by sharing their experiences and the tools they have learned from therapy using social media.
If we are going to address the stigma, we have to first normalize the fact that mental health challenges can affect anyone, and with the right support, they can be managed.
“Addressing this hesitancy might involve “promoting wellness and encouraging individuals to act on early signs of mental distress through education”. Creating opportunities for “social prescribers” to refer others to get mental health care. Social prescribers can make referrals to different organisations depending on the needs of the individual such as therapy sessions, companies that offer self-care services (such as massages for stress reduction), debt advice, social support such as domestic violence helplines, and child social workers”.
“Additionally, some persons also self-medicate with marijuana, alcohol, and other recreational drugs to soothe their discomforts rather than seeking professional help”.
What can people do to move past their hesitation with trusting mental health practitioners?
“Encouraging people not to wait until a crisis when accessing care could potentially help to shift attitudes towards therapeutic services. I believe there is much work to be done in shifting cultural attitudes towards mental health care in the region which starts with education, public policy, and investing funds into decentralised treatment.
Those accessing care tend to also be preoccupied with their personal affairs being made public, therefore promoting a climate of complete confidentiality is vital to encourage service users to engage in therapeutic care”.
What can therapists do to better serve and reach community members?
“Therapists and/or mental health charities can serve working-class communities by engaging in appropriate community events/talks and spending physical time in these communities to establish trust and build rapport”.
“I also believe that therapists and counsellors should maintain a certain level of transparency and relatability to demystify therapeutic services when working within the community and should aim to integrate aspects of their personalities into their care delivery”.
Laura has plans to complete a Ph.D. in Counselling Psychology to provide therapeutic services to West Indians at home and in the diaspora. She is focused on providing collective cultural healing.
At present, she uses social media to offer psychological content to friends, family, and people within the Caribbean community. Whether it is writing about generational trauma, child-rearing practices, mental health stigma, racism, racist micro-aggressions, sexuality, and religion, she covers a range of issues through the lens of her Caribbean roots.
This is another way therapists can better serve their communities – leaning into social media and sharing content that is bite-sized, culturally appropriate, and evidence-based for informational purposes. No longer can therapists ignore the outreach potential of social media and the community healing that can follow given their consistent thought leadership.
What are your thoughts on online therapy? What should people be mindful of when engaging in therapy this way?
“Online therapy is an excellent tool to reach persons who may struggle to attend a practice for many reasons. Online therapy can also help to initiate care for users who might otherwise avoid attending practice. Although it is difficult for counsellors and therapists to gauge somatic responses in these service users, I believe that some form of therapy is better than none for those who need it. Where possible it would be best practice to invite the individual to the private practice”.
Are there elements of our Caribbean culture that can provide additional pathways to healing for our people?
“Many elements of Caribbean culture can provide a pathway to healing including music, dance, supportive social groups, and spending time in nature. Individual mental wellness can be improved drastically through simple lifestyle changes such as eating breakfast and eating enough protein throughout the day, sleeping at least 7-8 hours, practising aerobic exercise, reducing alcohol and drug consumption, making time for breathwork/meditation – all of which have all been scientifically proven to have a positive impact on brain function and overall wellbeing”.
These recommendations come from a place of experience for Laura. As a 33-year-old mother, she leans into different layers of wellness to take care of her mental health as she caters to the mental health of those in her community.
“As a busy working mum, ensuring that I make time to have adequate rest is essential for my well-being and productivity. I try to walk to my destinations as much as possible which allows me to exercise, spend time outdoors and expose my skin to vitamin D”.
“I also limit alcohol consumption, abstain from using recreational drugs, eat well and often throughout the day, choose my social circles wisely, make time to connect with loved ones and attend a 1-hour therapy session every week. Self-care for me also looks like- always doing my makeup, having long showers, indulging in massages and nail care when I have the time, and not sweating the small stuff”.