Kimberly Woolery
Expert Name: Kimberly Woolery
Expert Title: Kimberly Woolery
Company Name:  Special Learning, Inc.
Company URL: www.special-learning.com
Short Bio: Kimberly Woolery received her bachelor’s degree in philosophy with a minor in psychology from Florida International University and her master’s degree in counseling psychology with a concentration in Advanced Applied Behavior Analysis from Nova Southeastern University. Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Kimberly’s clinical research interests lies in achieving cultural competency in behavior analytic service delivery. As a clinical specialist at Special Learning, Kimberly hopes to fuse marriage and family therapy with behavior analysis to create a culturally sensitive service delivery model for the special needs population in developing countries like Jamaica.

The Stigma of Mental Illness in Jamaica – Part 1

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2012), the word stigma is defined as “a) archaic: a scar left by hot iron, b) a mark of shame or discredit and c) an identifying mark or characteristic; specifically: a specific diagnostic sign or disease”. When a person thinks of mental illness they associate the term with something that is deviant and abnormal. Many people are of the preconceived notion that mental illnesses are not biological or “organic”, which renders it as something that is not worth seeking professional help for.

It is no secret that there is a persistent stigma attached to mental illnesses in Jamaica. This stigma continues to be a huge roadblock when it comes to effectively treating patients in Jamaica. According to a case study conducted by Jamaican and US mental health professionals, Hickling et. al, 2010 on the delicate issue of “stigma”, the participants’ reported some positive and empathetic responses. However, the majority of the individual’s emotional responses was fear. People reported that they were fearful because of first hand experiences with others who were mentally ill or from second hand experience, which often included hearing stories from trusted sources about their experiences and observation.

It is not uncommon for Jamaican adults to refuse to seek professional help and care even if it is highly recommended by their family physician or friends. Jamaican parents become even more defensive when a doctor suggests that their child may be a candidate for mental health services, whether it is a psychological disorder such as depression or a developmental disability or disorder such as Autism, ADHD or Depression. Adults, however, have the right to make their own choices, but what does this mean for children who are suffering from some undiagnosed disorder or disability? These children have no say or right to make a choice for themselves because they are relying on their parents to make the right decisions for them. If the parents are so afraid of the stigma, then it is only natural to assume that if a parent does suspect something may be wrong with their child without any interjection from an outsider, then their initial instinct is to reject the idea of having their child assessed and referred for any type of mental health treatment. More importantly, when considering the group of individuals (both children and adults alike) who suffer from intellectual or developmental disabilities who may not have the capacity to make certain decisions for themselves, exactly how debilitating is this fear of the stigma for their caregivers and parents? Are parents willing to risk their child’s overall well being to protect them from being pariahs? Mental health professionals in the island report that they often meet several roadblocks when they are treating clients, simply because the majority of them are undiagnosed. They say that they can only do so much, but are limited in how they can help the child because they do not know what they are treating. Although they may suspect that a child has autistic tendencies but they are not in the place to make that deduction. 

While it is common knowledge that stigmatizing people with mental illnesses and disabilities is a pressing issue, these questions urge us to find answers on how to erase the stigma. This will not be an easy process, and it will not be resolved overnight but I believe that it starts with raising awareness about various disorders that affect the Jamaican population. However, I do think it is important to note that the process of erasing the stigma does not stop at just raising awareness. This has to be an on-going process which includes educating parents with facts, as many parents are often misinformed about the causes and the symptoms of disorders. It is important that parents and caregivers are well versed on the different types of treatments that are available so they can decide what is the best treatment for their child. Parents should be encouraged to talk to their pediatricians about what options they have, how expensive the treatment may be and also stress that having a child with good mental health will always result in a higher quality of life.