Op-Ed

Attitudes toward mental health

While the term trauma generally refers to an individual’s experience of and response to an adverse event, collective trauma describes the psychological reactions of society to a traumatic event.

Collective trauma is more complex as it reflects how major life events witnessed by a large group can lead to cultural shifts and societal changes.

For Bahamians, Hurricane Dorian and the COVID-19 pandemic are two such events.

In September 2019, Hurricane Dorian impacted the Northern Bahamas, ravaging Grand Bahama and the Abacos.

The Category 5 storm resulted in tremendous devastation, loss of life and loss of property.

Less than a year later, in March 2020, the COVID-19 virus and ensuing pandemic began a wave of threats, including illness, death, lockdowns, and economic hardships on a scale unprecedented for our country.

These catastrophes happened in rapid succession and have potentially affected Bahamians in every corner of our country, yet there has been little attention given to the very real psychological effects of both events.

Therefore, we, Christina Johnson and Dr. Helen Rolle, Bahamian psychotherapists, conducted preliminary research into current regional attitudes towards mental health and mental health treatment via a digital survey.

We aimed to establish a baseline from which we as clinicians and researchers could ascertain how best to assist Bahamians in realizing that mental health is a non-negotiable aspect to our overall health.

Culturally, we have not embraced mental health as much as we could, or quite frankly, should; so have these traumatic events had any influence on how Bahamians perceive mental health?

The answer is yes. There has been a shift in Bahamians’ attitudes toward mental health, and we see this specifically through the fact that Bahamians are giving more consideration to mental health.

The majority of all surveyed Bahamians agreed or agreed strongly that they now take their mental health more seriously since Hurricane Dorian and the COVID-19 pandemic.

While this is a win for the health of our country, it is important to acknowledge that it took our country’s most devastating hurricane on record and a global health crisis with severe local financial repercussions for us to get to this point.

This proves that just as with many other challenges our society faces, it is only when the challenges happen that they are addressed.

We simply are far too reactive and not proactive enough.

Prevention is better than management, and the time to respond is too late if it’s only when the crisis occurs.

It is notable that there is a difference between understanding support is needed, and engaging in help-seeking behaviors.

Stigma is a major barrier to seeking services; and in order for the collective mentality to change, the message that seeing a professional to assist in managing your emotions or stress in light of impactful situations like these is no different than going to a doctor to manage physical symptoms in light of an impactful illness, needs to be provided from a number of vantage points.

Community-based interventions, such as through schools and churches, would be an exceptional form of outreach in dispersing the message of destigmatization.

These are two entities that hold influence and importance in Bahamian society that could sincerely have a significant impact in addressing the need to nurture our mental health.

Mental health is a public health concern, and it is clear that more emphasis needs to be placed on mental healthcare by our public health departments.

While emphasis is placed on chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, these conditions do not affect the entire population.

Everyone has mental health, and as such we encourage the Ministry of Health and Wellness to prioritize mental health as a central area of outreach.

To change the landscape of mental health in this country, institutions of power must recognize its importance.

It will take a change from the top down to help make a significant and valuable impact.

There also must be increased access to cost-effective psychological services.

We are aware that there are mental health resources, including free and low-cost, that have been available even prior to Hurricane Dorian and the COVID-19 pandemic; and we recommend that these services are expanded upon due to current demand. Having access to trained paraprofessionals and peer-based services, in addition to professional services, would also be an asset to Bahamians.

In the wake of these crises, stress is at an all-time high.

The stress Bahamians are experiencing is overwhelmingly financial, or due to impactful loss like grieving the death of loved ones or housing instability.

When what has become routine becomes tumultuous and unpredictable, our body’s stress response impacts our mental health.

Something important to note is that as mentioned, we are still experiencing the pandemic two years later.

Pervasive stress is a threat to our health in general and greatly impacts our mental health.

With the extended footprint of the pandemic, it is safe to say that the stress Bahamians are experiencing is pervasive.

We have all been taught the importance of taking intentional care of our physical health, but it seems that taking care of our mental health is a message that has been neglected.

Self-care is something we can all take agency for in our own lives and has a marked positive impact on our mental health.

It is important to note that self-care is not just pampering yourself, which is how it has been marketed in the age of social media and wellness trends.

Self-care is intentionally doing anything that is of benefit to you, and that includes uncomfortable choices and decisions as well.

Taking good care of yourself should not be reserved for when things are going wrong; it should be our constant state of operation.

Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19 have highlighted the fragile nature of mental health for many Bahamians.

The magnitude of these recent catastrophes is so significant that we can no longer turn a blind eye to mental health considerations.

Our current situation is a public health crisis, and action must be taken to provide the necessary services.

Preventative measures targeted to improve health and achieve large-scale social outcomes through initiatives that address mental health in addition to addressing structural and social inequities, are vital to healing.

Increasing mental health awareness and literacy, having community leaders emphasizing and legitimizing mental health, and government-led health initiatives inclusive of mental health are all reasonable and actionable steps that we can take that can absolutely make a difference for the health and well-being of Bahamians.

It would be a shame if we didn’t take this opportunity to do something differently.

We have the awareness; now we just need to take action.

• Christina Johnson is a master’s level psychotherapist and mental health educator who operates Brightside Bahamas, a mental health and wellness practice in Nassau, Bahamas.

• Helen N. Rolle, PhD, NCC, is the founder of Path To Wellness Counseling & Psychological Services in Nassau, Bahamas.

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