"I Need Therapy": Overcoming Cultural Stigma in my Indo-Caribbean Community
“Someting wrong wid she, she head nah good yuh know.”
“Dem shoulda jail da mad lady. Is evil deh in she, wha rehab guh do?”
“Yuh hear how Naresh drink poison? When dem get da bad how yuh guh help them? Oh god how I praying for he wife and pickney, how dem guh live now?”
Growing up in a West Indian household I’ve never felt comfortable enough to even bring up the conversation on mental health support. You hear in passing the stories of others whose depression are written off as an incurable illness. Suicides are widely believed to be selfishly and senselessly committed, and people “in de mad house” are destined to stay there because there’s no hope for them. With attitudes like this it has never shocked me that my parents’ native Guyana has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
My bouts of depression came from anxiety: the crippling, I-can’t-get-out-my-bed-and-I’m-crying-with-worry kind. The kind that scares your mother so much that she stays home from work to make sure you’re okay enough to be left alone. It slowly eats away at you as you get swept away in a cycle of negativity that feels never-ending. Sure, “it’s in your head”, but those racing thoughts have a way of manifesting throughout your entire being. The best my mother could do when it became too much was hold me close, and tell me to fast on the upcoming Friday. The soft hum of Sri Prakash Gossai’s Hanuman Chalisa would play from the speakers on my night table, as she murmured mantras and circled my head, her hand clenching a crumpled sheet of newspaper filled with onion and garlic skins, dried chillies and salt.
7 times clockwise.
Outside it goes, into an old pan and burned.
The stronger the stink, the more certain it was that somebody cast “bad eye” your way.
“Yuh nah pray. You don’t keep fast anymore. This full moon you muss pray.”
The stigma around mental health in general was a big part of what stopped me from seeking help. And when things got bad enough that I knew I should reach out, I literally could not find the words to speak.
I couldn’t understand why my body would tremble, seemingly out of nowhere, or how my arms would slowly start to go numb. How could the thoughts in my head become physical feelings?
Panic would envelope me all at once, as if caressing me into a gentle lull and then suffocating me with the full force of its embrace.
My breaking point was when I had a full-blown panic attack during the work day, in the middle of a busy sales floor. If I had broken my leg that day, I would’ve seen a doctor to treat it. Why was this any different?
I was afraid of what I thought therapy was, and what it must mean to be a person desperate for help. But I was terrified of how these physical symptoms were running my life into the ground.
What we were conditioned to think about therapy, is not what it actually is.
My parents come from a country burdened with a legacy of trauma.
When slavery was abolished in 1838, the British colonial powers began importing indentured labourers from the Indian sub-continent to the West Indian colonies in the Caribbean. This is often described as a “new system of slavery”, as historians highlight the harshness of indentureship and grittiness of abuses.
This untold history recounts the indentured being beaten on the journey across the Kala Pani, women and children onboard falling victim to sexual assault by their plantation overseers, and all were confined to unsanitary living quarters that festered disease and death. Those who survived the journey found cruel treatment and hard labour waiting on the sugar plantations, instead of the abundance of gold and opportunity they were promised.
Shortly after Guyana gained its independence from the British in 1966, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham was established as the new state’s head of government. In the 1980s, Burnham led Guyana as a dictator and his policies led the country to economic stagnation. My father remembers the misuse of power and unfair elections, the banning of wheat flour that created immediate deprivation of daily meals, and racial tensions between the Indo- and Afro-Caribbeans that escalated into riots and massacres in the Guyana he left behind.
Guyana has been one of the poorest countries in South America, with a per capita GDP of just $4,000. In a 2014 report by the World Health Organization, Guyana was cited as having a suicide rate that was four times the global average.
60 percent of the country's population of 800,000 citizens live in remote coastal villages, where jobs are hard to come by and community resources, including mental health facilities, are limited.
It isn’t a wonder to me that the legacy of intergenerational trauma feeds itself in this ugly cycle.
Anthony Autar, a US-licensed lawyer and Indo-Guyanese mental health advocate, took the lead in 2014 to launch the largest private mental health initiative to address the World Health Organization’s report on Guyana’s high suicide rates.
Autar cites fear of gossip, and fear of being locked away at the National Psychiatric Hospital (commonly referred to as the “Berbice Madhouse”) as just a few of the many factors that contribute to a lack of understanding what mental health is.
I share my experience with accessing mental health support with the understanding that I am among the first generation, as an Indo-Guyanese-Canadian, that has the luxury of being supported in environments that encourage us to do so. The key to overcoming the cultural stigma surrounding mental health was realizing the outcome was much too important. The quality of my life is in my hands, and I refused to live a life where panic attacks could one day become my norm if I chose to ignore how my body was crying out for help.
If you’re looking for therapy and don’t know how to start, here’s how I did it:
Google is our friend
I remember the shame I felt at the thought of asking for help when anxiety took control of my life. I didn’t know who to ask, or where to start, and was very afraid of not being taken seriously. So I looked to Google for answers and searched therapists near me. I figured an appointment would be my starting point, and speaking directly with a professional would easily point me in the direction I needed.
The first link I clicked took me to psychologytoday.com, an online directory of therapists, treatment centres and support groups across Canada. The search bar only needed a location, and once I hit search I could scroll through a list of nearby therapists categorized by postal code and clickable maps that showed me how far their offices were from my house.
Navigating is a cinch
The online directory is easy to navigate and makes finding a therapist a very straightforward process, without any frustration and all the information you need to make a decision. Each therapist’s name features a full bio with their photo, background, credentials and education. A list of the therapist’s Specialities are easy to scroll through. Each page also lists the type of Issues the therapist addresses (such as racial identity, self esteem issues, internet addiction) types of therapy offered (such as Cognitive Behavioural, Mindfulness-Based), and Financial information, including the cost per session and accepted insurance plans.
Culturally sensitive therapists are out there
It was very important to me to find a female therapist from a South Asian background. I wanted a young woman who would understand that the only support I could get from my parents was advice to pray more, that I couldn’t “just talk to them about how I’m feeling” and that so much of my distress was from the pressures of building a career without parental guidance.
Thankfully, “culturally sensitive” was a term that was listed in many profiles I viewed while I was choosing my therapist, and the online directory featured countless therapists from cultural backgrounds similar to my own.
As young people of diaspora with hyphenated identities, it can be easy to minimize how we feel because we had the opportunity to grow up here. Our parents left homes thousands of miles away and carry traumas of their own that leave us judging ours as miniscule in comparison. Mental health and the pressures first-generations face in navigating, being educated, and building in the Western world can often be met with little to no guidance. The impact this has on our mental health exists, and you are absolutely deserving of addressing it without guilt, shame or stigma. Ours is the first generation to actively seek out therapy, and with advocacy and open dialogue, this is the beginning of intergenerational healing.