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Charlotte Amalie
Thursday, April 18, 2024
HomeNewsLocal newsRemoving Mental Health Stigmas Can Save Lives, Advocates Say

Removing Mental Health Stigmas Can Save Lives, Advocates Say

Lifting taboos about discussing mental illness and homelessness in the Virgin Islanders could save lives, advocates said. (Shutterstock image)

Had he lived, Milton Gordon would have turned 67 on Wednesday. Whoever gunned Gordon down early Palm Sunday might have seen the Christiansted fixture as expendable. Police described the man found dead on Company Street around 3 a.m. as a “harmless, homeless individual.” But like the hundreds of other Virgin Islanders with no fixed address, Gordon, commonly known as Bobo, was much more than his housing situation.

Karen Dickenson, president of the Christiansted homeless advocates Collective Collaboration Inc, took to social media saying Gordon’s death had shaken her, that he was part of their family — a man deserving of respect and sympathy.

Dickenson wiped away tears in a Senate hearing last year, saying the homeless and mentally ill in the community were in desperate need of help. She did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article but her impassioned social media videos said enough.

Properly addressing homelessness and mental illness requires removing stigma, said Jessica Whyte, a behavioral therapist who opened a mental illness support network in St. Thomas the same day as Gordon’s yet-unsolved slaying.

About 75 percent of homeless people have mental challenges, Whyte said. The stigma of mental illness can lead to societal neglect and ostracism. The non-profit St. Clair Institute seeks to help people facing mental challenges as well as their families, Whyte said.

“Mental illness is still so taboo here in the territory,” she said. “People don’t want to deal with having a family member who is mentally ill. The point is to really reduce the stigma around it and provide that level of support.”

Families can feel overwhelmed and exhausted by a loved one with a mental disorder, she said, especially if it results in anti-social behavior. This can lead to unworkable and potentially unsafe situations — even when family members have the best of intentions.

“Perhaps they do have family members but they don’t want to go to their homes because they feel judged or they have a level of psychosis that does not allow them to remain there,” she said. “Sometimes we think, Ok, well, they’re just on the street and the families are not looking out for them. That’s not the final end of the story. The truth is, they need some added assistance. They need medication. They need that support, someone that’s going to understand what they’re experiencing and simply be able to be patient with them in that process.”

It’s important for both the ill person and their family to feel heard, she said.

“The validation is not about whether they are right or wrong,” Whyte said. “Validation is simply saying, I see you and I understand where you are coming from. But here’s how we can do it differently. I think that for most of the individuals that we encounter, validation is a big piece for them because they just want to know that they are understood.”

A first step is recognizing there could be something wrong. Whyte urged anyone questioning their own mental wellness or that of a family member to reach out to the St. Clair Institute. Whyte can be reached at stclairinstitute.org, at 340-774-2972, and at info@Stclairinstitute.org

After recognizing there is a problem, Whyte said St. Clair is able to give a variety of support, including steering people toward existing services and helping them navigate the process. Something as simple as getting a person food assistance can eliminate behavior that could send a person into crisis.

Living on the street can be a major stressor for anyone, especially someone with a mental illness. Petty theft and other minor crimes can be a mode of survival that lands a person in jail. Without a dedicated support network, they will likely soon return, Whyte said.

“It’s really no way to live. And that’s one of the things that we want to do, is to restore integrity, restore respect in those individuals. You know, they are somebody’s brother, sister, mother, father, right? And we want to be able to give them that love and unconditional positive regard and treat them with respect,” she said.

“Individuals who have these challenges tend to become so frustrated with the system they resort to that type of inappropriate behaviors — doing things that land them back in jail. So, them having a supportive system and somebody that can actually help them through the process and kind of get them back on their feet is important,” she said.

Prior to returning to the native Virgin Islands in 2017, Whyte worked with the soon-to-be-released prisoners at the Atlanta City Detention Center.

“We had a reentry program which would see the clients at the end of their stay and we would be able to prepare them for what they could expect in civilian life,” she said. “Here in the Virgin Islands, that was something that I thought to do.”

Whyte is asking the Bureau of Corrections, Department of Health Services, and the community at large to refer people who may be suffering from mental health issues. The family of these people are welcome too. The non-profit institute shares a space with Whyte’s private practice, the JW Behavioral Center, which sees families and individuals dealing with trauma, crisis, and other mental health issues.

“In terms of crime and people doing things just to get by, we have a mental health counselor with them, help them to understand the why, what’s fueling those types of behaviors. We would be able to assist them in terms of holding a job, help them go through the Department of Labor, helping them to get IDs. Many of them don’t even have legal IDs that they need to apply for any type of social services. We will walk them through the process of going through the social services system to be able to get medical assistance, maybe SNAP so they will be able to feed themselves.,” she said.

All this comes from a very personal place for Whyte. The institute is named for her brother, who has been in and out of hospitals since a schizophrenia diagnosis in the 1970s.

With family support and professional care, Whyte’s brother is able to live a normal life with a few exceptions.

“He now has his own apartment. He’s able to do a few things on his own. He can grocery shop. He can go to human services and handle his business. He can go to the bank. There’s a few things he can’t do, of course. As a family we still ensure his bills are paid on time and all those things.”

It’s important, she said, to honestly assess potential mental health issues and address them with compassion. Pretending nothing is wrong can lead to more harm.

“If you feel a certain way, if something doesn’t feel right, just simply reach out. If it doesn’t feel right, chances are something is not right. Just reach out,” she said. “Reach out to us and we can assist in walking through that process.”

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