A few years ago, Shainna Ali ’10 ’12MA ’16 PhD was studying some statistics when the mental health clinician came across something shocking –– in 2016 Guyana had the highest suicide rate across the globe and it was nearly triple the global average. During that year the global average was 10.5 deaths for every 100,000 people, compared to Guyana’s 29.2.

As someone of Guyanese descent, Ali has since committed herself to combatting this daunting statistic and improving mental health education for West Indian cultures. The suicide rates in Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and Suriname also were all above average in 2016.

In 2016 Guyana had the highest suicide rate across the globe.

“Being from a West Indian background, it’s not common to discuss mental health. When it is brought up, it’s often a very stigmatized or misinformed perception, and that bars people from getting the help that they need,” says Ali, who earned a bachelor’s in anthropology, master’s in mental health counseling, and doctorate in education with a counselor education focus at UCF.

On top of managing her private practice in downtown Orlando, Ali fulfills an ambassador role for Guyana by the International Registry of Counselor Education Programs. The position helps her connect with organizations in Guyana who focus on mental health.

Ali provides more insight here on mental health in Guyana and other West Indian cultures:

Why is mental health so stigmatized in West Indian culture?
Many cultures heavily stigmatize mental health. Oftentimes it can be explained by a lack of awareness on the topic. Common misunderstandings contribute to stigmatized beliefs.

“Common misunderstandings contribute to stigmatized beliefs.” – Shainna Ali, UCF grad

Another potential explanation may be related to collectivism. West Indian culture is an amalgamation of a lot of ethnic groups, and many of them are collectivist in nature. It might seem against this value system to seek help beyond the community.

While I am uncertain about specific factors within West Indian culture, I am certainly curious about them. Tailored information can be provided to combat stigmatized views and ultimately help more individuals foster their mental wellness. I hope to have more answers on this topic in a few years as I plan to explore this question in an upcoming qualitative study.

Growing up in a Guyanese family, what was the conversation about mental health like?
We didn’t really talk about mental health at all growing up, and if it was it was in a hushed form. While mental health specifically was not often discussed, remarks about substance use and misuse were commonplace I also remember learning about a now late aunt, described as a wonderful an intelligent young woman, who experienced unexplained changes and was eventually institutionalized. Discussing her narrative was uncommon, and when it was discussed, there were often many missing pieces. I noticed that people would, probably unknowingly, use pejorative terms to describe her mental health, or lack thereof. Growing up this gave me very confused and conflicted views of mental health.

We all have the responsibility of fostering our mental wellness.” – Shainna Ali, UCF grad

Later on in life I realized mental health is something that we all have, it isn’t just this marginalized population that ends up afflicted by mental health illnesses. We all have mental health, and therefore, we all have the responsibility of fostering our mental wellness as well.

You view mental health as a broad category and within that you like to focus on mental wellness, which involves proactively caring for your mental state. What are some ways someone can care for their mental wellness?

  1. It is important to foster your self-awareness. Recognize what makes you balanced, what puts you off balance, knowing your triggers, and warning signs and how you self-regulate can all empower your mental health if you are willing and open to paying attention to them.
  2. Create a self-care plan that works for you. Everyone is different and what works for a loved one may not work for you. What is similar, however, is that without proper self-care, we may increase the difficulty of coping with mental health concerns. It is helpful to be proactive with your self-care to help you monitor and manage your wellness before problems become exacerbated.
  1. Know when it is time to seek help. If you are struggling with the items noted above, it may be because you are facing a concern that warrants professional help. The sooner you seek help, the faster you can improve your mental wellness.

What can be done to reduce the stigma around mental health in Caribbean nations, as well as others across the globe?
We all have our own belief system about mental health. You may have drawn these conclusions from direct and/or indirect experiences. It can be helpful to step back and approach your beliefs with curiosity. If you realized that you may hold stigmatized beliefs, without judgement, reflect on where these thoughts may have emerged from.

Then confront the stigma with awareness and education. Examples may be reading about mental health, going to a support group, or talking to a mental health professional.

Finally, you may wish to contribute to the expanding dialogue surrounding mental health awareness. Speak against stigma and be willing to advocate for the importance of mental wellness. This is something that I am noticing that younger West Indian generations are becoming a part of, which is very exciting and really uplifting.

UCF Students can access free mental health services at Counseling and Psychological Services. If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.