Letters to the Editor

Use this dark situation of Haile Clacken's death to learn more about mental health

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

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Dear Editor,

A week ago in Cheapside, St Elizabeth, a man by the name of Haile Clacken was gunned down after 'hitching' a ride on an armoured vehicle. The incident was reportedly witnessed by at least 10 onlookers, who have described it with words like “senseless” and “brutal”, and report that he was on his knees pleading for his life.

On hearing the story, I immediately noted several similarities between he and I — both of us are journalists, students of literature, St Elizabeth natives and, most pertinently, challenged with bipolar disorder.

Not only has his untimely death jolted me considerably, but it also raises many questions, especially after a week has already passed without a peep from the typically eager human rights defenders and impassioned church community. It is quite disheartening that the cover of a telephone directory could incite weeks of dialogue, yet a catastrophe like this garners crickets and tumbleweeds. Where is the public outcry?

Where is the investigative journalism? Where are the well-written think-pieces on the state of Jamaica's mental health policies, referencing previous cases, and calling for corporate Jamaica to step up to the plate?

I am yet to see one.

What little there have been seemingly gives more weight to Clacken being the son of a People's National Party caretaker, rather than the fact that a father, teacher, mentor, husband, community leader, and a good man by all accounts was killed.

This highlights many deep-seated issues, not the least of which is the way we, as a Jamaican collective, view mental illness, and our attitudes towards challenged individuals. As someone facing a similar challenge similar to Clacken, I believe I understand the situation a bit and feel compelled to raise a few questions in the hope that it not only keeps the conversation going, but also helps the powers that be to take informed action. Now is the perfect time for a public awareness campaign on mental health and illness.

He took a seemingly bizarre, out of character action which led to his death, but for us to understand it we must be clear on how his condition works. Bipolar disorder or manic depression is characterised by unusual mood swings, behaviour and functional ability, usually with two extremes — very heightened emotional and energetic states, or low frequency resulting in severe depression. In layman's terms, you are either really happy to the point of doing ridiculous things without much thought (like, for example, climbing an armoured truck), or crushed under the weight of sadness, unable to function normally – traits from each spectrum can also happen simultaneously.

This is not an uncommon challenge, yet many Jamaicans are unfamiliar with the condition. It is therefore very important that we see this tragic incident as a learning opportunity; a chance to apply a more inclusive approach to dealing with mental illness, rather than a 'those people over there' mentality.

Ideally, there would be no stigma and the public should be able to perform mental health first aid, or at least identify the symptoms and know where to seek help when it is needed. This way, individuals like Clacken can be immediately identified as in need of assistance and a safe, supportive environment. It is just as important to know the signs of mental illness as it is to know the signs of a heart attack, yet when we do recognise them they are met with ridicule, disdain, or worse, violence.

Mentally ill people are not criminals or societal scourges to be wiped out. We are humans with treatable or manageable conditions, valuable thoughts and emotions, and worthy of living our lives, whether functional or in need of treatment. We are not monsters, we deserve justice too.

Given the poor state of handling mental health to date, it is hardly surprising that no one has thought of the fact that an entire community is now traumatised by the shooting. Who will cater to their mental health? What happens now? Will we remain complacent while a wreath and an apology is sent for the 'regrettable, unfortunate' occurrence, while the system proceeds in its customarily glacial manner?

Haile Clacken was slain by a man who may well need mental health aid himself. Are we properly screening security personnel before equipping them with guns and sending them out to 'protect and serve' us? Let us not languish in ignorance any longer, let's use this dark situation to learn more about mental health, discuss it openly, show more love and support to challenged individuals, and shed light on the real issues that lie beneath.

I believe this is what Haile Clacken would want.

Tameka A Coley

Executive member — Jamaica Mental Health Advocacy Network

Blogtivist: Tsansai.com

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