The Silent Epidemic: Mental Health in Caribbean Families

Statements like “I don’t know, you must be mad or something” and “She seems like she’s not so right in the head” may seem a little insensitive, but living around Caribbean people, these phrases have been normalized and do not phase me. That is until recently. Mental health in the Caribbean household is like the largest elephant in a room that no one ever addresses. Instead of acknowledging the problem like most American families, they kind of just pass by the elephant, be friendly with it, make side comments, and then laugh about it to other family members and friends at holiday dinners.

Being a student at Williams, I have come to understand just how important mental health is. I have seen first hand, how failing to properly take care of your self has destroyed your emotional health, academic career, and social life. There is a belief by a lot of Caribbean people that the only sickness a person can have is physical pain. If your leg isn’t broken and you have a roof over your head with food in your mouth, there is absolutely nothing that could be wrong. The only pains that can be remedied are those that are fixable with tylenol, motrin, or a cast. Even then I’m sure that they believe that there is nothing that some vicks vapor rub and ginger tea can’t fix. The idea of having a therapist is easily shut down, as to them it immediately means that there is something wrong with you that can’t be fixed.

Recently, I was discussing this matter with a family member who is a landlord dealing with a tenant with mental health issues. Her boyfriend had recently left her and not contacted the landlord that she was there alone or even had mental health issues that needed to be addressed. When the boyfriend was asked about it he said things like “she needs to get herself together” and “she is acting selfish”. After hearing about her symptoms, her behavior sounded a lot like a schizophrenia. Let that image sink into your head, specifically, imagine telling a schizophrenic patient that they were being selfish.

I honestly think that there is a deeper stigma with emotional and mental health within the Caribbean household compared to an American household. Some of it is a cultural barrier that goes way back to actually leaving on the islands that they are from. Back then any sickness that couldn’t be fixed with medicine was excused as because of a  “duppy” (Ghosts). Although it seems crazy to still believe in this idea, I think that these beliefs have simply been firmly established within the culture. The idea of the “unfixable” and the unexplainable scares them. It is easier to rely on cultural practices and beliefs than it is to actually deal with the larger problems. When faced with the unfamiliar it is easier to joke around about it. I think that the stereotype of mental health being an irreparable event is passed down unconsciously generation to generation. Personally, I have made a conscious effort to explain the importance of mental and emotional health to my family. I think it is vital that we as the next generation stress the vitality of taking care of yourself; body, soul, and mind. Maybe one day mental health can stop being seen as a “generational curse” and more of a circumstance that can be addressed.