Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Mark Wignall | Tough times and depression

Published:Thursday | May 25, 2017 | 5:00 AM

I am likely to see Smoky about three times per week, but, of course, it depends on how often I visit the little spot close to the car wash. He is fully adorned in framed wire on his back, an extension of it runs to a crown of sorts on his head, and there are plastic, ball-shaped objects hanging down both sides. He is barefooted.

"Is mi uncle," one lady I know said to me months ago. I was tempted to yield to curiosity and ask the usual - what brought him there - but a young man nearby chimed in with, "Him read too much Maccabees Bible and it mad him." That foolishness needed no comment.

Smoky was always making up a 'spliff' which had in more paper and thrash in it than ganja and tobacco. He could be somewhere in his late 50s or early 60s, or even his 70s. A lot was hidden under the grime and grit.

A little way up the hill from where Smoky has his territory, and collects food from relatives who have long grown used to the idea of him living on the streets and parading like a 'madman', there is another man always walking with an old, rusted cheese pan. Clothes barely hanging on him, barefooted and, like Smoky, never a word from his lips.

It has been reported by mental health professionals that there has been a doubling of the mentally ill over the last 10 years. Bear in mind that the country's mental health base was shaky to begin with, as in a 2011 study by Freddie Hickling, Professor Emeritus of psychiatry of the University of the West Indies, it was determined that 40 per cent of the population suffered from some type of mental illness.

 

NO EASY ANSWERS

 

Did that explain anything? Why we spoke so loud to each other? Why our mode of humour borrowed quite heavily from violent words and terms? I had no easy answers and neither did the governmental health authorities who were plainly powerless in stemming the tide of this descent into mental disorder.

In comparison with the 1970s and 1980s, it appears to me that violence against the mentally ill has been somewhat lessened. If that is a good sign. What is not so good is the number of young men I see acting strange on the road.

A few days ago, and outside of a gathering spot, a teenage young man approaches me and asks me for a cigarette. It is his tone and eyes that tells me he is not right. "Sorry, I do not smoke," I say, and he moves off hurriedly, muttering to himself.

 

A CHANGED MAN

 

A few months ago, I was in another spot when a dishevelled, toothless man, hovering anywhere above 40 said, "Mark Wignall."

I looked at him and said hi.

"You don't remember me," he said. Then he called the name of his aunt who I knew. As I was just about to respond, he disappeared. The person I remembered was stocky and not emaciated as he was. I can remember him and his aunt being overjoyed as he took his PhD in molecular biology. "Is that ...?" I asked. A man said, "Him mash up him life. Gyal lef him. Used to work up university, was on the way to Belgium. Then di coke."

He had been reduced to practically nothing in life. What does it say about a country where three to four of out of every 10 of its people have some mental or psychiatric disorder? Can it be far divorced from an explanation of our high rate of violent crime?

Early one morning, in the 1990s, I took an obviously mentally disturbed person on to my veranda, fed her and used a heavy cloth to wipe disgusting snot from her nose. My phone call to Bellevue told me they had no vehicles. My wife could not believe what I was doing as we prepared the car to take her in.

We did and a few weeks after, I saw her back on the road. Are the times just too rough for many? Even for those treating the mentally ill?

The new influx of young men joining the mentally ill is most disturbing. And many more in the society are feeling powerless.

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