Coming out of the mental-health closet
The news of American actor Robin Williams taking his own life left many in shock. A man who made so many laugh, was suffering from depression. Then came the news from one of our own young, bright Jamaicans, Brandon Allwood, that he is struggling with depression, has tried to kill himself several times and is currently undergoing treatment in Canada. Allwood first shared his personal story on his friend Chelan Smith's blog, THE ADVENTURES of MAMACHEL (mamachel.com). This week, Allwood shares that story with Outlook.
The first time I tried to kill myself, I was 15. I lunged through a window in my fifth-form classroom and was pulled back by some of my classmates - who subsequently made much fun of the whole debacle. A few weeks later, I tried clumsily to swallow a bunch of tablets - Excedrin Extra Strength, to be precise. I had a massive stomach ache afterwards, but death was (sadly) nowhere close.
My teenage years were, in fact, a spate of suicide attempts and anxiety attacks. I confided in a friend of mine, whose mother contacted mine. In a fit of rage, my mother burst into my room and declared: "If yuh ever kill yourself, jancrow woulda nyam yuh body. If yuh tink mi woulda gi yuh a funeral, yuh mek a sad mistake." Without a doubt, my mother thought I was being a dramatic teenager in the throes of puberty who was merely acting out because something didn't go my way.
That quip from my mother has always stuck with me - a lesson that she wasn't one to go to when my head was all dark.
I had my first nervous breakdown at 19 in the
middle of what was then the biggest project of me professional life. It
led to my being homeless for four days and were it not for the fact that
the project came attached to a hotel room, I would have had nowhere to
sleep for those four days. I moved in with one of my 'uptown' friends
and lived with her family for nine months. Another 'uptown' friend
encouraged me to seek therapy. LOL! What? Gyal som'n dat! Rich people
A dark place
But I was in a
dark place, a place where the concept of time changes. A place where
there are no days or weeks, only a sharp silence and a everlasting
darkness. A place that absolutely breaks one down, strips one bare. A
paradoxical limbo; a place of possibilities and sharp realities, of fact
and fantasy. A place where one's purpose is annihilated. A place where
idealists are raped, a place where hope is replaced with a very sorry
kind of wisdom. It is a place where the thought of taking your own life
is completely rational. It is a place where you can regret not taking
your own life earlier, a place where you hate the fact that you were
even born. It is a place where there is no hope, a place where it
physically hurts to even be awake. It's a place where you stay ...
unless you get help ... .
The idea of eating at times
became repulsive. I would force myself to eat as often as I could, but
eventually, I got tired of making the effort. Really tired. In the six
weeks before being admitted to Humber River Regional Hospital, Keele
Site, in Canada, I dropped from an already slightly skinny 180 pounds,
to a mind-blowing 120 pounds. I had only been eating two or three times
Eventually, I got help. I was diagnosed with
depression and anxiety disorders, placed on anti-depressants, and had
weekly psychotherapy sessions. They helped, and I thought I was better.
At the time, I believed this was not only a temporary thing, but also
that I had better things to do with my time and money. I was
Since I decided I was better and stopped my
treatments, my adult life has become reminiscent of my teenage years. I
found myself having anxiety attacks regularly, isolating myself,
deleting people and things that I once enjoyed from my life. Most of
all, I have not dealt with several large issues - from death to family -
in any real way. The cup finally ran over, again, a few weeks ago. I
broke down, but this time, instead of being homeless, I was
institutionalised. There, a lovely nurse named Madge (well, not only
her) helped me come to grips with the fact that my 'issues' are not just
'issues'. Depression and anxiety disorders are mental illnesses that
require treatment (please note I did not say medication or consulting a
pastor who is not appropriately trained).
mentally ill. Wow. It doesn't make sense. Yet, it
I have seriously tried to take my own life more
than 16 times. I have thought about it an incalculable number of times.
Even more alarming, I have regretted not doing it too many times. I wear
a sweater, no matter the temperature, because I am always anxious and
fearful that people will touch me. I wear my 'resting snob face' 24/7 to
avoid anyone I don't know asking me questions or thinking I'm friendly,
because I am literally scared to death of interacting with people,
doing something wrong, saying something wrong. It's why, if there's one
person at the table I don't know, you won't be hearing from me all
Accepting that I
am mentally ill is something my family and friends are struggling with. I
forced my mother to say it out loud and she stuttered before breaking
down in tears. I explained to her that while her behaviour towards me
during my childhood might have made my depression worse, it wasn't
really her fault. I understand, now, that my mother and most Jamaicans
are of the 'help-yourself-nuttin-nuh-wrong-wid-yuh' ilk. This was a
foreign thing for her and best dealt with through some concept of tough
It is instructive to note that all the black
people on the ward with me were of Jamaican descent. Throughout my
entire stay, one woman repeatedly came up to me saying, "Hi daddy, mi a
di ugliest bitch alive, don't it?"
We must begin to
'de-brown' mental illness in Jamaica. Ironically, mental illnesses such
as depression and anxiety are more likely to occur in people who are
poor(er?) and more disadvantaged in society. At some point, we have to
question why all the mental-illness events and walks and days are
seemingly supported by the same kind of people - 'brown' and 'uptown'.
Why is it that the conversation about mental illness happens solely in
the Golden Triangle? Why is it that the cost of getting help for mental
illness is so high? Why is it that there are no support systems in
primary and secondary schools to help students deal with the
ever-increasing pressure of an archaic exam-centric educational system
with a multiplicity of other problems that have a severe impact on
Depression is much different from 'feeling sad'
or 'being down'. It is a terrible mental illness, and I want you to read
that sentence out loud. People who experience depression deal with
severe negative feelings and thoughts that become their general routine.
This despair affects every aspect of their lives. Those who are so
depressed to consider suicide never do so thinking 'this is the easy way
out'; we do so thinking this is the ONLY way
Taking your own
life is not a trivial matter. It is something that people usually think
about for some time before making an attempt. In my own case, when I
tried to hang myself from the pull-up bar in my room five weeks ago, I
thought not of myself, but of my friends and family. I thought that I
would be doing them a favour by leaving them with a memory of a good
friend, and not having them deal with the dark, horrible person I
thought I had become. I felt like I hit a wall in my personal life with
financial and school troubles and I was absolutely tired of being a
burden on the universe. For me, it was a selfless thought, a heroic act
and even though I am being treated now for my depression, I still regret
having been too tall for the noose to do its
This is not a call for the Government; it is a
call for us all to seriously look at our attitudes towards mental
illness. How we support our children, siblings, parents, friends and
colleagues who are affected by the gamut of mental ailments. It is about
us, as a people, being more open to the idea that sometimes we actually
do need help and that 'help' is not always a case of cultural
imperialism or 'uptown'. It is an open call, for anyone who wants to be a
better human being, to understand that people who struggle with mental
illness need support and love. It is an open call to read just a little
literature on mental illnesses and find out how you might be affected by
it (either in your own life or that of a friend).
Brandon was born and raised in Jamaica. He moved to Canada in 2012 to
pursue communication studies and history at York University in Toronto.
He is a professional communicator and human rights advocate, as well as a
former journalist and writer. He is a recipient of the Prime Minister's
National Youth Award for Excellence in Journalism, the KCOBA (Toronto
Chapter) Citizenship Award and the City of Toronto Award for Excellence
in Community Development. The 'washbelly' of his family, Brandon is
looking to pursue a career in law and advocacy in the