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Trinidad’s silent pandemic: shining a light on Mental Health

The month of May is dedicated to raising awareness about mental health, which has been described as a “silent pandemic”. While the visible signs of mental illness are often discussed, there is still a lot of unseen trauma and stigma associated with mental health issues.

To shed light on this important topic, Altos spoke with Karline Brathwaite, a mental health planner and creative arts therapist.

One of the key challenges, according to Brathwaite, is that many people struggle to define mental health itself. “If you stop and ask the average person, ‘What is mental health?’ a lot of people struggle to find language and words to describe something that doesn’t necessarily have an obvious form,” she said.

Brathwaite emphasised the importance of distinguishing ‘mental health’ from ‘mental illness’, noting that the former is a broader concept. “People immediately associate mental health with mental illness, which is just one aspect of the conversation,” she explained.

While certain factors like trauma, substance abuse, and economic instability can increase the risk of developing a mental health disorder, Brathwaite stressed the importance of protective factors as well.

“It’s a balancing act between risk factors and protective factors,” she said. “If we also have positive, healthy relationships, if we have access to care, we have social-emotional skills, those things prevent or protect us from the likelihood of developing a disorder.”

Men’s mental health challenges

One of the most striking points raised by Brathwaite is the alarming statistic that men in Trinidad and Tobago are three to four times more likely to die by suicide than women. “The strongest risk factor or predictor for suicide is being male in Trinidad, which I think is significant.”

Brathwaite acknowledged that there is still much work to be done in understanding the factors that contribute to men taking their own lives.

One of the barriers to addressing men’s mental health issues is the societal stigma surrounding help-seeking behaviour among men. Brathwaite pointed out that “Men are not necessarily excited to seek help. Help-seeking is not something that is very common in men.”

She suggested that this reluctance to seek help could be rooted in cultural factors and a broader misunderstanding of how men perceive and express their mental health needs.

To bridge this gap, Brathwaite emphasised the need for a deeper understanding of how men approach their health and well-being. “I think we misunderstand men, largely,” she said. “I think it’s super important to empower men to speak up for themselves in the helping profession.”

Brathwaite also highlighted the importance of meeting men where they are and tailoring mental health support to their specific needs and communication styles. “So, for me, the main point would be, men, hey, speak up, tell us, correct us, show us so we can meet you halfway,” she urged.

The impact of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdown measures have had a profound effect on mental health, particularly among young people, according to Brathwaite. She cited a study conducted at The University of the West Indies that revealed concerning trends in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“We’re seeing the impact of social isolation,” Brathwaite stated. “Again, we are made and built for relationship. So that has definitely had an impact we can see in our children.”

The prolonged periods of isolation and disruption to normal social interactions took a toll on children’s social and emotional development. Brathwaite highlighted some of the specific issues observed, including:

  • Difficulties with social and emotional skills
  • Challenges in engaging and interacting with others
  • Setbacks in learning and adapting to classroom environments after virtual learning.

Additionally, for those who experienced stressful or violent home environments during the lockdowns, the impact has been particularly severe. “We’re seeing the impact as well, again, of being cooped up in a house where there’s a lot of violence, where there’s a lot of conflict,” Brathwaite explained.

While the study Brathwaite referenced did not provide specific results, she mentioned that it found an increase in conditions such as anxiety, depression, and self-harming behaviours among young people because of the pandemic’s impact.

Advice for parents

For parents concerned about their children’s mental health, Brathwaite stressed the importance of becoming informed and engaging with their children. “Mental health literacy is critical wherever you are in whatever sector you represent,” she said. “So, for parents, get the information, become more aware. Mental health looks different in children than it does in adults.”

She also encouraged parents to have open conversations with their children and to seek guidance from professionals if needed, rather than jumping to diagnose or pathologise their children’s behaviour.

Mental health in the workplace

While there is no national policy in place to guide workplace mental health practices, Brathwaite stated the importance of creating a culture of safety and wellness in the workplace.

“If I’m experiencing my own personal issues, I may have a mental health diagnosis, but I spend most of my time at the workplace and I don’t feel safe to disclose to my manager, or if I’m having a particularly stressful time, whatever, it could be deadlines, and I don’t feel safe to confide in a colleague, then how are we going to be able to function optimally?” she asked.

Coping mechanisms

Brathwaite recommended a combination of physical and mental coping strategies, such as exercise, self-talk, prayer, meditation, and seeking professional help when needed.

“Seeking help is super important. Setting healthy boundaries in our relationships. Those are some coping techniques that we want to mix and use in different situations,” she advised.