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Overcoming mental health issues: Alston High’s dean of discipline pushes for better understanding of the illness

Published:Thursday | October 7, 2021 | 12:06 AMCecelia Campbell-Livingston/Gleaner Writer
Andre Wellington
Andre Wellington

ANDRE WELLINGTON is the dean of discipline at Alston High School in Northern Clarendon and it’s a post he treasures as it was no easy feat getting there.

Battling and overcoming mental illness, he is now advocating for more understanding and better treatment for those who are dealing with the condition.

First diagnosed in 1998, he had a psychotic episode two years later and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychotic depression.

Reminiscing, he shared with The Gleaner that the diagnosis was very hard on him in the initial stages as he did not know much about mental illness and he was very young at the time – just discovering his identity as a man.

Placed on anti-psychotic medications, Wellington was told by his psychiatrist, Dr Doreth Garvey, that he could still lead a normal life if he stayed compliant with his medication and receive social support.

“The medications at the time had a lot of side effects, but I trained my mind to live with the side effects of the medications. I developed coping strategies by learning more about mental illness, joining support group and building friendships with people who empathise with me as well as staying compliant with my medications,” Wellington shared on his journey.

He admits to feelings of embarrassment during his early years dealing with mental illness, and was too ashamed to talk about his illness as he said he didn’t want anyone to label him as ‘mad’ or attached any other phrases used to describe mentally ill persons.

Today, he is thankful for the strong support given by his family, who he said were very supportive from the onset. The same, however, could not be said of his community and work environment in the early years due to the stigma that was attached to mental illness in the late ‘90s to early 2000s.

Now at a place where he has accepted his situation and is even helping others through it, he said there was a time when he felt frustrated and even wondered why God allowed him to be mentally ill. He didn’t have long to dwell on it, as he said an amazing mental health team at the Percy Junor Health Centre in Mandeville was his support team and they even helped him to accept his mental health challenges and to develop coping skills.

“I told myself that mental illness will change my life, but I must not allow it to stop me from leading a normal life. Looking back over the past 20-plus years, I think I have battled it quite manly with humility, openness, courage and God’s grace. I use exercise, nutrition, support groups and family and friends to release some of my stress and burdens whenever I feel weary and broken in spirit,” he shared.

Wellington also informed that journalling aided him in healing and being mentally strong. Writing about his struggles, he said, gave him a feeling of self-control and empowerment.

As a dean of discipline at the school, Wellington notes that his intimate knowledge of mental illness helps him to better understand students who may have some mental health issues or simply going through some wilderness experiences.

He opines that he uses his own experience with mental illness to extend compassion and treat every student with dignity.

“The guidance counsellor and I share a wonderful professional relationship and I am proud to say that she values my suggestions and advice whenever I make a referral to her regarding students with mental or emotional challenges,” he stated.

For Wellington, it’s time Jamaicans have a sound knowledge and proper grasp of the nature of mental illness as too many are buying into the stereotypical narratives and single story about the ailment which is tainted by stigma, prejudice and discrimination.

Sharing that a lot of Jamaicans are unaware of the resilience, competence and enduring strength of many mentally ill persons who have led remarkable lives, such as John Nash, Orrette Rhoden, Jim Creary, Robin Williams and Simone Byles.

Sharing his ultimate wish, Wellington said it is for the Government to lead by example and place greater focus on mental health.

“I think there needs to be an amendment to the Mental Health Act by creating some form of affirmative actions in law to help mentally ill persons overcome the hurdles of discrimination in the workplace and reduce the scandalous rates of joblessness within the community of the mentally ill. I also think there needs to be a forensic mental health facility that treat with mentally ill persons who come in conflict with the law,” he shared.

Mental illness is over 4,000 years old despite not being recognised as a legitimate part of the human experience until the 1940s. It is the most widely overlooked and underserved health challenge of the 21st century.

In a 2019 report from PAHO, ‘Care For Mental Health Conditions in Jamaica: The Case For Investment’, it was noted that over time, there has been a rise in the number of individuals seeking treatment for mental illness.

According to the report in 2013 and 2014, there were approximately 90,000 visits to public health facilities for mental health treatment annually. Visits increased by about 20 per cent per year in the following two years, with nearly 108,000 visits in 2015 and 132,000 in 2016.