I recently felt challenged to condense my thoughts regarding my experiences with menstruation and taboo in Caribbean society. I don’t think it’s completely necessary to frequent fliers here but I will add the disclaimer that the experience that frames my experiences and observations about menstruation in the Caribbean are the experiences of a cisgender Caribbean woman and I’m applying my knowledge of black feminism and black feminist thought to how I view the subject.
Like most things considered to be “feminine” in the Caribbean, menstruation faces heavy stigma within our culture. There is both shame and pride surrounding the first menstrual cycle. Shame is one of the first lessons that we are taught about menstruation and it’s a lesson sowed so deep that the shame becomes instinct — and therefore, goes unquestioned. This root of this shame is a socially backed feeling that during menstruation, your body is disgusting and repulsive.
Intersectional feminism in the Caribbean means ending the stigma against mental health and actually addressing the mental health crisis as well as our culture’s ableism at large. I’ve tried to write a post about mental health and the Caribbean for months, continuing to draw blanks when I try to put a definition on our perceptions and attitudes towards mental health as a region. I struggle to portray the relationship succinctly in a way that would have the possibility to change the minds of those who believe that mental health is a struggle for the white, wealthy American.
West Indians who understand the problems we have with acknowledging mental health (much less treating mental health problems) doesn’t need to be told anything more. So, I figured that I would address the non believers in this post, in some desperate hope of breaking through.
Mental health is defined simply by a lazy author’s first hit on a google search as being “a person’s condition with regards to their psychological and emotional well being”. In general, I believe St. Lucians have pretty good mental health from all outward appearances (which may themselves be deceiving). As a whole the nation tends to be very relaxed, and possibly dangerously blasé about most issues. We maintain this lackadaisical cool towards near everything, letting neither poverty nor anything else bring us down.
However, these generalities exclude particular realities about our society that reflect a negative aspect of mental health, and that reflect a society with some fairly troubling undercurrents regarding emotional and psychological well being. There’s the common trope of the older West Indian man who spends all weekend nights drinking (and sometimes weekday evenings) only to come home piss drunk and beat his wife who has spent all day working alone to keep house and child. There’s the consistent presence of “crazy” people roaming downtown Castries as they move between the psychiatric hospital and the streets.
There is a lot going on at home and in the Caribbean diaspora that indicates poor mental health. We also know that poverty and the high stress of poverty are associated with conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Not so much for the rich and wealthy. Of course conversations surrounding mental health are cloaked in vague language at best and at worst flat out denial that these problems persist despite the fact that they are quite common. We silence conversations on mental health and choose not to believe that they could possibly affect us.
Perhaps we believe that black suffering is normal. After all, our nations were born out of blood and trauma. What else do we know? Impoverished mental health feels so familiar, that we don’t realize that we don’t have to suffer. There are names for our “eccentricities”. There are treatments and therapeutic techniques that mean no one should have to endure suffering, sometimes to the point of suicide.
Mental health is connected to physical health, whether or not we accept it. Taking care of our minds is not a white/American luxury; it’s a necessity. While understanding mental health through a spiritual framework may be culturally relevant, we also need to understand that making use of advanced scientific understanding of mental health is even more important to ensuring our nation’s health overall.
I find it troubling that we have so many people, often times young, able-bodied men, committing suicide in our country [x][x][x]. Other people seem to find it troubling as well and fall back on a spiritual understanding of this problem. While there’s nothing wrong with understanding various issues through spirituality, there is a problem when we ignore factual information about mental health to justify our preconceived ideas.
We need to learn about and destigmatize mental health issues. This needs to happen immediately so that we can stop losing our citizens to treatable problems. Mental illness is not a weakness that people can just “get over”. Mental illness is not just similar to physical illness. It is a physical illness. Would you tell someone to get over a broken leg? If not, you should never tell someone to “get over” a serious mental health problem.
There are resources available at the end of this post to help you understand common mental health issues better.